What Would Jesus Do? a sermon for Palm Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
What Would Jesus Do?
Luke 19.29-44
9 April 2017, NL3-31, Palm Sunday (are you all in?)

 

Today’s scripture reading is from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 19, beginning at verse 29, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

For many weeks now, we have been walking with Jesus as he set his face toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, and still is, the most important city for the Jews. It was home to around 500,000 people, contained palaces for the king and for the Roman officials who might need to visit to keep order, and of course the Temple was there, at the city’s highest point. Jerusalem is so important that one always goes “up” to Jerusalem, and “down” from Jerusalem, no matter the direction one is traveling. In today’s reading we find Jesus east of the city, approaching the Mount of Olives (which is of similar elevation as the Temple Mount), on his way up to Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry.

 

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’

~~~~~~~

 

Try for a moment to picture the scene of that first Palm Sunday, as Luke tells it. What do you notice happening? (multitude of disciples…no Hosannas, no palms…stones shouting out…praising God for all the deeds of power they had seen)

The last parade I attended was the Cubs World Series victory parade—which was amazing, with energy and cheering and singing. My friends and I made early morning guesses about how many times we would hear the song “Go Cubs Go” and then we kept a count throughout the day. There were throngs of people, and they really did seemingly spontaneously burst into song.

Palm Sunday wasn’t exactly a victory parade, though. The Roman empire was well known for victory marches, and some scholars even say that it’s likely Pilate arrived in Jerusalem with a show of strength around the same time Jesus arrived riding on a donkey. The Palm Sunday procession was more of a protest march than a victory parade, intentionally different from what Pilate or the Emperor would have done. So I think back to protests I’ve attended over the years—to the women’s march a few months ago, for instance—and how multitudes of people moved through the streets, sometimes chanting rhymes that became something of a mantra, and sometimes just chatting to each other along the way about things that are important enough to draw us out of our comfortable beds and into the crowded streets.

Each of those experiences in the streets of Chicago were very different. The atmosphere and the sense of purpose in the group were clear both times, one a long-awaited celebration, the other a day of passionate concern.

Twice, I have visited Jerusalem and walked the path down from the Mount of Olives, and up to Jerusalem and its Temple. Both times, I happened to walk that street right behind a large group of Israeli soldiers, in army uniforms and carrying large weapons. To say it was jarring to read the story of the Prince of Peace while walking behind a dozen rifle-carrying soldiers would be an understatement. That’s now the image I have in my mind when I picture the scene…and I wonder what would have happened, if those who ordered Jesus to silence his disciples had that kind of backup when he refused.

Everyone in the city would have known what they were seeing. From the very beginning, Jesus has said that today, in our hearing, while we are together in his presence, scripture is being fulfilled. He found a donkey colt and so even more scripture was fulfilled—that the Messiah would enter the holy city riding on a donkey. People around him were chanting and singing “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and talking about all the miracles and healings and teaching he had done. No one could have missed the meaning behind this protest, especially at a time when the Empire was sweeping into the city with their own display of power and might, their own understanding of keeping the peace.

So the Pharisees ordered him to stop it. It’s dangerous to be part of a crowd in these days, and this crowd looks an awful lot like treason, with words like “peace” and “king” ringing off the stone walls of the city. But Jesus knows there is no way to stop the good news, because God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. God’s voice will be heard, even if the stones themselves have to do the shouting. The ground itself cries out for justice and for peace, for an end to bloodshed and fear, for a world of hope and love, where scripture is fulfilled and the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the poor are lifted up in the year of jubilee.

Jesus knows that the power of the Empire is the power of violence, which relies on silencing the voices of the other—voices of the oppressed, voices of dissent, voices of pain or grief. That was never more true than in the act of crucifixion—a torture designed to be so shameful that the one facing it would be left to decompose and his family would never speak of him again. Crosses lined the roads of the Roman Empire, testament to the power of violence.

But Jesus refused to give violence that power. Even if everyone else’s voice is cut off, God’s will still speak—through stones if necessary.

And Jesus knows it will be necessary. He knows the day is coming when even his most fervent supporters and closest disciples will fall silent under the weight of fear and betrayal. He sees that so many of us will choose being peace lovers rather than peace makers, as the quote on the bulletin says. We will say the words, but we can’t seem to see our way to the work of peace. We too fall silent, for many personal reasons ranging from party loyalty to fear of retribution to belief that we can’t make a difference and everything in between, and our silence is what gives the empire its power to enforce its own version of peace through violence.

And Jesus wept over Jerusalem, looking across the valley at the Temple, at the thousands of residents and pilgrims, at the multitudes of disciples cheering around him and the Pharisees with their angry and scared faces… “if you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” If only we could see what Jesus sees, and understand his teaching and his life and his path…if only we could walk the way, the truth, and the life.

I can imagine Jesus’ tear-streaked face today, looking across the world at all the ways we have openly decided not to care for each other, the ways we have made war as if it will lead to peace, the ways we have believed that peace can exist without justice or hope, the ways we have turned inward seeking our own security and left God’s creation and God’s children to fend for themselves. God’s heart breaks in Syria, in Yemen, in the Sudan, in Palestine, in Colombia, in Mexico, in the halls of our shockingly segregated schools and prisons, in Egypt. I hear Jesus’ voice, thick with emotion and maybe shaking a little with sobs: “if you had only recognized the things that make for peace.” And I think of all the pretty words I’ve said, the hymns we sing and the token offerings we make, and I wonder: what are the things that make for real peace? What would it take for us to be peacemakers, not just peace lovers?

Kierkegaard wrote that many of us have fallen into the trap of admiring Jesus, like fans on the roadside during a parade, rather than following Jesus[1]. We aren’t called to be just fans, like of our favorite team or band. We’re called to follow—to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, to do what he did. To be a disciple is to pattern our lives on the one we trust, not only to think his teaching is good and important. The word disciple comes from the word discipline—to follow Jesus is a discipline, a practice, of trying to be like him. Kierkegaard wrote that admirers remain detached, not seeing that the thing we admire has a claim on us, and so we fail to become like what we admire. The fan uses plenty of words about how they love and treasure Jesus and his teaching…but it never reaches beyond words. The follower, though, tries with all their heart to be like Jesus, even if that means changing behavior or activity or life.

On that first Palm Sunday, there were plenty of fans, lots of admirers. And some naysayers, of course, who were at least open about their desire to silence the living Word. The trouble is that fans want silence too, as soon as the Word begins to speak about things that challenge their own beliefs, security, or plans. They’re just sneakier about how they seek that silence, using the threat of waning popularity or safety or money as their preferred tool. Remember that even the fans mostly deserted Jesus or turned against him as that first Holy Week went on and his challenge to the government and religious leaders became more clear. But the stones will still shout, no matter how silence is achieved. God has things to say, and they are things we need to hear, to see, to recognize—about peace and justice, love and grace, hope for the future, passion for the kingdom of God to come here on earth as it is in heaven.

As we enter this holiest of weeks, I encourage you to listen for what the stones are saying. As we walk this journey to Jerusalem, consider whether we do so as fans, or as followers. As a Holy Week practice, I think we should ask ourselves frequently “what would Jesus do?” It sounds cheesy, but it is as relevant a question as ever. When reading or hearing a news story, ask “what would Jesus do?” When we see a neighbor, or a co-worker, or another driver on the expressway, ask “what would Jesus do?” When we come to church, or read our email, or get out our offering envelopes, ask “what would Jesus do?” In small moments and big decisions, there’s the question: how would Jesus see this? how would he respond? what words or feelings or actions or prayers or offering or gesture would be most like Christ?

And then…here’s the catch. Try to do what he would do. After two seasons of reading Luke’s gospel straight through, we know Jesus’ mission: to feed, to free, to heal, to lift up, and to change the system that keeps people down. This can be the day that we recognize the things that make for peace—and not just that we see them, but that we do them. We can work to make our behavior line up with the pattern he set with his life, death, and resurrection. This Holy Week we will learn yet again that violence can never drive out violence, death can never drive out death, hate can never drive out hate, apathy can never drive out apathy, fear can never drive out fear…only love can do that.

May we be all in with Jesus.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.plough.com/en/topics/culture/holidays/easter-readings/followers-not-admirers

Posted on April 10, 2017 and filed under 2017.

Party Time--a sermon things lost & found (Luke 15)

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Party Time
Luke 15.1-32
19 March 2017, NL3-28, Lent 3 (are you all in?)

Today’s reading is from Luke chapter 15, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

Since we left off last week, Jesus has been at a dinner party, and teaching about hospitality and who is invited to feast in the kingdom of God. He reminded people that those who are lowly will be lifted up, and those who lift themselves up will be brought low. He taught that we are to invite people to share our bounty, especially if they cannot repay us or invite us in return—undoing the system of reciprocity and quid-pro-quo, insisting that hospitality is a blessing we are to share. He told a story about people invited to a large dinner, who made excuses when it was time to come to the table. In his parable, the host then had everyone in the city’s streets and alleys, including the poor and sick, brought in to share the feast. Jesus speaks of the cost and demands of being his disciples, and calls us to be fully committed to following him. That’s where we pick up the story today.

 

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

 So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”

I Will Arise, verse 1 & 2

 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

I Will Arise, verse 3

            One:    For the word of God in Scripture;

                        for the word of God among us;

                        for the word of God within us,  

            All:     Thanks be to God.   

I Will Arise, verse 4

 

~~~~~~~~~

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Surely all of us would abandon the obedient sheep out in the wilderness—not in a pasture or fenced grazing area, the wilderness—in order to go after the one that didn’t want to conform. Who wouldn’t leave 99% of their property and wealth in danger, and then on returning with the one recalcitrant sheep, throw a party for all the neighbors, who likely think he’s irresponsible for risking the rest of the flock?

Or what woman, having ten days wages, if she loses one day’s paycheck, wouldn’t move all the furniture and sort through all the recycling until she found it…and then call together all the neighbors for a party, probably spending that money to celebrate finding what was lost?

Or what family, having said goodbye to the ne’er-do-well younger child, knowing they’re going to behave badly and lose everything but hoping they won’t get themselves hurt, wouldn’t watch out the window and wait for his return, and then run out to meet him and hand over all the best party clothes and fire up the grill and break out the best wine and call all the neighbors for a party when he finally returns penniless?

There seems to be a theme in Jesus’ parables today. Even a quick read through this chapter will make clear Jesus’ stories are about being lost and found—and that whether we are one of a hundred, one of ten, or one of two, God cares deeply about us, and we are all found by grace, again and again. Nothing, and no one, is lost to God.

But there’s another theme right alongside being found…the party. Every single one of these stories of being found ends with a party! Jesus is obviously into celebration. He, too, was clearly looking for reasons to have cake, no matter how tenuous the need for a party might be. One found sheep—cake! One found paycheck—cake! One found son—cake! You can see that I came by my love of church celebration cakes honestly. J

And it isn’t just about the party—in every story, there’s a growing hint that the celebration is extravagant, perhaps even unwise or unnecessary. No one wealthy enough to have a hundred sheep would leave 99 of them at risk to go search for the one…and no one poor enough to search so desperately for one day’s wages would spend it on inviting her neighbors over for a party because she found it. We see the rational, responsible, early free-market leanings in the elder brother in the third story. He worked hard, he followed the rules, and instead of being rewarded with advancement, he sees his shiftless moocher of a younger brother get celebrated for doing nothing other than losing everything with his wasteful and lazy ways. So he takes a stand for radical individualism and personal fiscal responsibility: he refuses to go in to the party.

Here is why it’s important that we read all three parables together, as the Narrative Lectionary places them, rather than one by one at different times like we might be more used to. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus asks “which of you…” and then at the end of the chapter we wonder: does the older brother go in? And we realize that the question has been building the whole time. He knows that we are often like the older brother, and wants to know: are we coming in to the party?

Through all three stories we see Jesus sketching out the character of God: it is the nature of God to seek, to find, to welcome. It is in God’s character to restore identity and relationship—the one sheep is reunited with the flock, the woman comes out of her individual consumer fear to join with her neighbors, the younger son “came to himself” and remembered who he is, the older son distances himself with words like “this son of yours” and the father responds with “this brother of yours”…and every single instance of being found by grace then leads to the whole community coming together in gratitude.

And so the question: will we go in to the party? The decorations are up, the grill is going, the cake is still warm, the sparkling cider is poured. Everything God has is already ours, now how will we experience it and use it in this life?

Going in to the party means letting go of a grudging spirit…Gratitude can’t be only for what God has done for us, but also what God has done for them. Even if they’re the ones who wandered off and got into trouble, or the ones who are using their found money in ways we wouldn’t… if we want to experience the fullness of mercy and grace ourselves, here and now, we’ll need to practice celebrating God’s grace given to others. We have been found by grace, again and again, for the Spirit is always calling, breathing life, creating community, bringing together all kinds of people.

Going in to the party means admitting that love doesn’t require confession…the younger son never even gets his whole confession out of his mouth before the father is dressing him and hugging him and cutting the cake. Love was there the whole time. Our repentance is just that—ours. It reminds us who we really are, puts our focus on our true identity, rather than all the other ways we have defined or hidden or created ourselves. It doesn’t earn us a place at the table, it simply prepares us to receive what God is already giving us. We are fed by grace at Christ’s table, where no reservations are necessary!

Most of all, going in to the party means accepting grace as the family rule. Being part of this family, God’s family, the Body of Christ, means everything we are, everything we say, everything we do, is about grace. Setting aside grudges and our understanding of who is good enough, allowing God’s love to be the foundation and the measure of life. It means admitting we’re just as lost, and just as found, as anyone else, no matter how much we think we have earned or they have not earned. And it means that even when we would prefer not to claim some of the family, they’re still ours to love, because in this family, we follow by grace, seeking to be living examples of Christ’s welcome.

No matter who you are, what you have done, or where you are on life’s journey…all are welcome, we mean it. And more importantly, God means it.

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

Posted on March 19, 2017 and filed under 2017.

Healing Word--a sermon on Luke 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
healing word
Luke 7.1-17
5 February 2017, NL 3-22

 

Today’s reading begins with a phrase that could be translated “After all Jesus’ words had filled the people’s ears…” Those words that Jesus had been speaking just before today’s reading were the sermon on the plain, or what in Matthew is called the sermon on the mount. Jesus said things like “blessed are the poor, hungry, and mourning”…and then he also said “woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.” He taught that we are to love our enemies, to avoid judging others by our own imperfect human standards, and to do the things he says, not only let them go in one ear and out the other. These are the things he had been talking about when we pick up the story in Luke, chapter 7, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

 

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

 

~~~~~~~

I have to confess that I have had some pretty serious problems with this scripture reading, all week long. A centurion, head of a battalion of the Roman army which is occupying and oppressing the Jewish people and many others all around the Mediterranean basin, owns another person. He probably owns several people, actually—slavery was common in the ancient world, as people either sold themselves or family members to pay a debt, or as people were captured during the Empire’s expansion. The person enslaved by this centurion is so sick he is near death...but his labor is valuable, so the centurion/slave owner asks for help. The local elders tell Jesus that the centurion/slave owner is worthy of having his enslaved worker restored to health, because he built the synagogue for them—in other words, they owe him a favor. The centurion/slave owner tells Jesus that he is used to being obeyed, so he expects Jesus is too, what with his even higher authority. Jesus pronounces this great faith, and the enslaved person is returned to good health (i.e., to productive worker status).

I think this is a troubling story in lots of ways. The implicit acceptance of slavery is the most obvious issue. Then there’s also the part where everyone from the elders to the friends to Jesus himself say that the centurion—the officer of the occupying army, the owner of slaves—is so good and generous and faithful that of course he deserves to have the slave healed so he can get back to unpaid work. And also the fact that the reasoning given by the Jewish elders for why Jesus should help a Roman centurion is because he gave the money to build the synagogue…they were in his debt, and he called that favor in when he was in danger of losing a slave in the most unprofitable of ways.

And Jesus went. And he said nothing about the enslaved person at all. The man was healed, of course, by Jesus’ word that is so powerful he can work miracles from afar. But he was still in slavery—he was healed, but not freed.

Then Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd continue on their journey, only to encounter a funeral procession. Where most of us might pull over out of respect, or lower our eyes until the people have passed, Jesus sees this widow whose son has died and he has compassion for her. Compassion isn’t just sympathy, or even empathy—it’s a stomach-twisting suffering with the other person that is incomplete without action…and Jesus acts when he sees this grieving woman. A widow was vulnerable, and a widow with no male children was even more so. She was dependent on either her father’s family or on the charity of her neighbors, and was often separated from society due to her lack of status and lack of resources. With a word, Jesus heals the man and returns him to his mother—and by extension returns her to stability and community.

One man was nearly dead, and the other was dead…and with a word, Jesus heals both of them. But he doesn’t only do it for them—he also heals them for the sake of others in their lives. For the sake of the mother. For the sake of the centurion. Or perhaps in both cases, for the sake of the whole community.

The centurion is a well-off man, in charge of a segment of the world’s most powerful army. He asks for a miracle, knowing he deserves one, either because of his station or because of what he has done for the town. The people around him believe the same—he has done good things, he has earned a healing or two. By all our worldly standards, he is a prime candidate for receiving good things from God: he has power, money and status, and the whole town owes him a favor.

The widow, meanwhile, is not just underprivileged or at-risk, she is worthless. She asks for nothing in the midst of her mourning. It’s not even clear whether or not she sees Jesus at all, or whether she is just walking beside her son’s body, weeping and wailing, immersed in her own world of pain. By all our worldly standards, she deserves nothing, because she is nothing.

We could hardly ask for a wider difference between two recipients of Jesus’ attention. There is a chasm between their circumstances and stations in life that seems impossible to cross. Yet his voice reaches each of them, exactly where they are. The living word speaks not only to those who ask, not only to those who are worthy, but also to those who are overlooked or even trampled down. And the whole community listens in.

What do they hear?

 

That God has compassion for the lowly.

That God cares about people in distress, especially those we might otherwise overlook.

That God does not work according to our human rules, customs, social groups, or religious traditions.

That God’s power is not defined or confined by what we consider to be “deserving.”

 

And when they had heard—when their ears were full of all the things Jesus said and did—the word about him spread throughout the country.

They kept the word—the powerful, compassionate, loving word that brings healing—moving and living throughout the land. They didn’t let the word stop with them. Jesus said the strong foundation for the life of faith requires putting his teaching into action, requires feeling the suffering and the joy of our neighbors and then doing something about it.

Both of these miracle stories offer us the opportunity to join that community that heard the voice that could raise the dead and the dying, and then shared the word. Because, you see, both miracles are unfinished. The enslaved man is healed, but not freed. The widow and her son are reunited, but the woman is not freed. The work of healing our community and culture is still ours to do. The bodies are restored, but the wholeness that comes with justice is still a ways off. As long as some are not free, none of us are free. When Paul wrote that we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, he wasn’t only giving instructions about empathy and prayer, he was reminding us that our wholeness is bound up in one another. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Each healing story gives us the first step, and calls us to join the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom where no one is left out, no one is just a prop in someone else’s story, no one has to worry about who will take care of them. Jesus showed us his way: no barriers, no hierarchy of deserving, no judgment of circumstance. He spoke the word…now comes the hard part where we try to live as if the word is true. When all of us who make up this community hear and obey Christ’s healing word, the truth will set us free—all of us, not just some.

May it be so. Amen.

Posted on February 6, 2017 and filed under 2017.

Ready or Not--a sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Ready or Not
Isaiah 9.2, 6-7, Luke 2.1-20, John 1.1-5, 14

 

The people who walked in darkness

   have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—

   on them light has shined.

For a child has been born for us,

   a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

   and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,

   and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

   He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

   from this time onwards and for evermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,           

‘Glory to God in the highest

heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

 ~~~~

 

When I had lived in Egypt for about 8 months, my brother and dad came for a visit. We went on a Nile river cruise, and one afternoon we were watching the countryside go by when one of them noticed something odd. I couldn’t see what they were talking about, so asked what they meant, and they said they had seen someone bringing a water buffalo up out of the river and into the ground floor of the house.

 

The reality of animals and people living together in the same home had long since stopped being unusual in my mind. Outside the cities, and even in the city in some neighborhoods, it’s common for homes to be built with two or three stories—the ground floor housed animals and tools and supplies, the upper floor the family’s living quarters. It was rare to see separate barns across the field like we had back home on the farm, because it was safer and easier and more efficient to have everyone in one house.

 

That visit was more than ten years ago now, and it was only about two weeks ago that I put any of these pieces together in my mind, as I read an article that pointed out that the word Luke uses that we usually translate as “inn” is only used in one other place in the Bible—when Jesus and the disciples share the last supper in the Upper Room.

 

Suddenly I recalled all those village homes that looked like they were straight out of ancient times. I mean, I had known there were no hotels in those days, that hospitality was provided to both family and stranger in every home as part of the culture and values of the Israelite people. But to suddenly read the story as “there was no place for them in the upper room” made everything sound different.

 

It was a busy season, of course, with people crowding in for the census. It makes sense that every space in every home would be used…the upper room that was reserved for guests would have been filled, probably by multiple visitors. The family’s living quarters on the middle floor would not have been spacious to begin with, and likely children and mothers were spread out on mats everywhere. The ground floor, where the animals lived, would still have been well within the family’s space, and probably could accommodate a few other travelers in addition to the donkeys and cattle who ate and slept there during the chilly nights.

 

There was no place for them in the guest quarters, or even in the family’s own rooms, but the animals that were their livelihood could always make space. Far from turning Joseph and Mary away, the owners of the house made room as well as they could, even when the best space wasn’t available, even when no one was prepared. All it took was one nook and cranny not already stuffed full, and God seized the moment and chose to be born there

 

I’m pretty sure, having seen these homes and villages, that the scene bears little resemblance to our traditional Christmas cards and carols and pageants. We have cleaned up the story to fit our ideals of beauty and divinity and purity and humility. The shepherds who come running have miraculously showered along the way, and the stable is in a field far from anyone who might hear the cries of labor pains, and there’s remarkably little dirt or manure or blood anywhere.

 

But when we tidy it up, separating Mary and Joseph from the rest of the crowded village and from the realities of life, keeping everything very sanitary and pretty, we lose something important: God didn’t need the perfectly cleaned guest room or the well-decorated hotel or even the slightly messy but still habitable family bedroom. God needed people who were willing to carry the Son—Mary and Joseph, who didn’t have white skin and blonde hair like the paintings, but who did say yes to God using their bodies and minds and hearts and reputations and livelihoods. And God needed a space—any space—to be born in us.

 

And like most babies, Jesus came when he felt like it…not when the nursery was ready and the parents prepared and peace had already descended on the earth. God chose to break into the world, through pain and muck and stray pieces of fur, in the midst of a dictatorship proving their power over occupied people, in whatever small space could be found.

 

This is still the way, of course. The prophet Isaiah said that light has shined on those who live in a land of deep darkness…doesn’t that feel like this world sometimes? Or this year, a lot of the time? The shadows are long—shadows of grief, of fear, of violence, of uncertainty. The news only seems to get worse every day. If all we have are Christmas-card perfect images of God, where can Jesus possibly fit into this world of brokenness and hurt?

 

This morning the front page of the Wall Street Journal held a photo of a man in the suburbs of Damascus, decorating a Christmas tree with empty shells he had painted. These ornaments are every size—small bullet casings and large empty bomb shells—and he used these weapons to fight back with beauty. Each one is carefully painted with a gorgeous design, and hung with ribbon on a “tree” made from metal rings. In the valley of the shadow of death, light shines and love wins.

 

Even in the land of deep darkness, a child has been born for us, a Son given to us…did you notice the prepositions? A child has been born FOR us, a Son given TO us…the angels echo the prophet: TO you this day is born a savior. To US. For US. Not just for people who are ready, or people who understand. Not just given to people who have plenty of room for one more thing. God’s gift of incarnation, of love in the flesh, of living among us as we are—the gift of Jesus—is given to us, and he is for us, whether we are ready or not. It doesn’t take much space, just a tin tree in the backyard decorated with spent weapons from the neighborhood, a corner of the basement, a few spare inches in a crowded heart…God, like a newborn baby, has a way of taking over a room and a life.

 

Here, and now, however dark the night, the good news is still true: whatever room we have available, no matter how small or unfinished or dirty or crowded, God will use to birth love and light into the world again.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Posted on December 25, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Assumptions--a sermon on Hannah & Eli (1 Samuel 1-2)

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Assumptions
1 Samuel 1.9-20, 2.1-10
16 October 2016, NL3-6, H2-1 (God Provides)

After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.

It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2 can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’

 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’

Hannah prayed and said,

‘My heart exults in the Lord;

   my strength is exalted in my God.

My mouth derides my enemies,

   because I rejoice in my victory.

 

‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,

   no one besides you;

   there is no Rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly,

   let not arrogance come from your mouth;

for the Lord is a God of knowledge,

   and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken,

   but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,

   but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The barren has borne seven,

   but she who has many children is forlorn.

The Lord kills and brings to life;

   he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

   he brings low, he also exalts.

He raises up the poor from the dust;

   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes

   and inherit a seat of honour.

For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,

   and on them he has set the world.

 

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,

   but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

   for not by might does one prevail.

The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;

   the Most High will thunder in heaven.

The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;

   he will give strength to his king,

   and exalt the power of his anointed.’

~~~~~~~~~~

Assumptions: we all make them, we all have them, and many of us chafe under them.

We all know what happens when we assume.

But it’s as if we can’t help ourselves, we do it anyway. It’s unconscious—we’ve just absorbed certain things, and we see them as if they are reality, never thinking to question them until something dramatic happens to tear the scales from our eyes and give us a little clearer vision.

Hannah was a woman about whom a lot of assumptions were made. Peninah, the other wife, and all the rest of society assumed Hannah was worthless, a barren woman who contributed nothing, not even fulfilling her most basic purpose. She was easy to look down on, because she was in fact beneath them. Her husband assumed she knew her own worth in his eyes. It’s likely that Hannah even assumed about herself that she didn’t matter, that something was wrong with her.

And then Eli, sitting on the Temple steps, watched her…a barren woman, talking to herself, crying. Perhaps she was what we used to derisively call “hysterical.” He assumed she was drunk. He assumed she was a sinner, a woman of no account, making a spectacle of herself, embarrassing herself and her family.

But Hannah shocked everyone—probably including herself—by standing up and challenging Eli’s assumptions. NO: She is not drunk. She is not a worthless woman. She is a person made in God’s image, whole and beloved. She matters.

Any number of things could happen at this point, when someone challenges our assumptions. This is the moment a lot of violence, especially domestic violence, happens—when one person asserts their worth, contradicting the one who assumed they were in control. So often we make assumptions about the people we see, or the people we hear about. Consciously or not, we have decided somewhere along the way that they matter less—because of their gender, or their skin color, or their weight, or their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their economic class. We would never put it like that, of course. We look back on those ancient times when women’s worth was measured by their ability to bear male children and we shake our heads, grateful that isn’t the scale anymore.

But if we’re honest, we have a scale. Some people are more worthy, more deserving, than others. Somewhere along the way, humans equated “having” with “deserving.” And when those who don’t have, and therefore don’t deserve, stand up and insist that they matter too, they are made in the image of God, they are beloved…we who live with a lot of advantages have a hard time with that. Perhaps we even fear that if they are loved and valued, then we won’t be anymore. So we lash out, with words or with guns. We put them back in their place, whether by wondering why they won’t just conform to our standards or by physically putting them where we think they belong—often in prison.

Thankfully for Hannah, when God provided her the courage to value herself and to challenge Eli’s assumptions, God also provided Eli the courage to hear her with an open mind and heart, and to drop his beliefs and treat her differently. Instead of chastising her further for her uppity response, or hitting her, or calling her husband to shame her in public, he gave her a blessing. He recognized there was more to this story than he originally perceived.

It is from this moment—not the moment she gets pregnant, or the moment she gives birth to a boy, or the moment she drops Samuel off at the Temple—this moment, when Hannah challenged the assumptions that had been made about her, that “her countenance was sad no longer.” The weight of other people’s projections and expectations was lifted, and she saw herself as she truly was. And not only that, but God provided her a witness, someone else who could see her as she really was, even if it took some fighting on her part to get there. Eli’s perception was changed as he allowed Hannah to be a person in her own right, not just a carrier of other people’s assumptions. And Hannah’s life was changed from the inside out when she knew herself both seen and valued.

It isn’t surprising that Hannah would burst into song—with a new understanding of herself, she sees God’s world more clearly. She sees that it is God who provides—from the foundations of the earth to the cares of the barren woman. And her whole song is about how God’s providence challenges the assumptions of the world—breaking the bows of the mighty, while strengthening the feeble, filling the hungry while the full seek nourishment, raising up the poor and the needy from the dust and seating them with princes. While the world is in the business of getting and keeping, and often does so by pushing some down, God is in the business of reversal.

This week there was a conversation in one of the narrative lectionary preaching groups about Hannah’s song, particularly the line “my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” Surely we don’t want to encourage people to gloat? After all, God calls us all to reconciliation and wholeness, not to celebrating at the expense of others. We talked about this for a long time, but ultimately I think this is another place where we are relying too heavily on our assumptions, and God may be providing us a new way of seeing.

Throughout her story, Hannah has been brutally honest about her distress and her need. She doesn’t mince words or pretend things are okay (but by the way, God, if you have a moment…) She has borne the abuse and scorn of society and even her own family, for years. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that she would then have a moment of triumph? It doesn’t last long—her song is about God and all the ways God works in the world to bring about justice. But for a moment, she gets to be angry at how she has been treated. She is allowed to feel that anger.

It’s that moment when we get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to be angry. And in some cases, if we were fully honest and allowed God to open our eyes like Eli’s, we don't even necessarily want people to credit God with the reversal. We want the credit for making change, creating space, helping the less fortunate. Acknowledging that it is God who provides—often through our abundance—means also acknowledging that those people matter to God just as much as we do. It means challenging our deep and sometimes subconscious assumptions that people of color are less capable, or people who are poor are lazy, or people who are Muslim are terrorists, or people with accents don’t belong here.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—the world, and those who live in it. Hannah acknowledges that God is, for lack of a better term, the “owner” of all things, and provides for us what we need. Sometimes what we need is a reality check, a glimpse of God’s kingdom truth. When we get it, God also provides us the courage to do something with that gift. Just as with every other gift God gives, it’s for a purpose. Hannah knew that the proper response to God’s providing was to give it back—she promised Samuel to God, to serve in the temple, and she took him there and left him to grow up to be the priest who changed the course of history. The same is true of less tangible gifts. God provides, and we are called to respond.

I hope that throughout this Harvest 2 season, as we consider the many different ways God provides, we will also consider what God calls us to do with what we are given. Whether that’s a gift of challenged assumptions, a gift of resources, a gift of talent or time—God’s purpose is the same: abundant life for all creation, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May we have the courage of Hannah and the openness of Eli, to participate in God’s great reversal until all know themselves beloved.

Amen.

 

Posted on October 16, 2016 and filed under 2016.

God Can't? a sermon on Exodus 32 & the golden calf

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
God Can’t?
Exodus 32.1-14
9 October 2016, NL3-5, H1-5 (In God We Trust)

When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organize their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

 

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

 

“And the Lord changed his mind”—these are words we don’t hear often.

As we read the Bible in 90 Days this summer, it came up a few times, and each time it was a little bit of a shock to many. Before deciding the flood the earth, God regrets making humans on the earth…there are discussions between Abraham and God where God listens to Abraham and adjusts the course of action…and of course there’s the story of Jonah, where God reverses a decision and God’s ability to change makes Jonah angry. It makes us uncomfortable, to think of God changing God’s mind. Somewhere along the way, we decided that is impossible—God can’t do that.

As soon as we start uttering words like “God can’t do that” we should be getting nervous.

It’s one thing to say “the God we see in Jesus is like ____” or “in scripture we learn that God does ____.” It’s a whole other thing for us to claim what God can and cannot do.

One of the core tenets of the Reformed tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part, is the Sovereignty of God. We believe that God is free to order and rule creation according to God’s will, and we—who are not God—can’t restrict God. Which sounds so obvious when we say it out loud, and yet we are so uncomfortable with God’s ultimate and eternal freedom that we have placed all these bounds on how God should behave, when really the unchanging thing about God is Love—that is God’s nature, God’s essence. From that core reality, God is free to do whatever God will, including changing direction.

We are so used to metaphors like God is my rock and my fortress, the ground of being, the foundation, our refuge and strength…our hymns and our creeds describe God as eternal and unchanging…and we forget that is one side of a metaphor, one aspect that isn’t the whole story. We like our God to be stable and reliable, right there when we need someone to lean on, and not too demanding as we face a world that could never have been imagined by the writers of scripture.

Which is, in many ways, exactly what the newly freed Israelites wanted too. They had seen what God could do—witnessed plagues, crossed through the sea on dry ground, been fed by manna and quail, seen water gush from a rock, heard God’s voice rumble at the top of the mountain, and committed themselves to following God’s way. But now…Moses had been gone a long time, and they were getting antsy. This just wanted something more stable, more visible, more… unchanging.

It isn’t that they made themselves a new god, exactly. After all, they use the same liturgy—here is the god who brought you out of Egypt. It’s more that they made a static image to stand in for our dynamic God. Rather than give their offerings of gold and fine linen and precious jewels—as they had been called to—for a tent that would symbolize God living among them, they give them instead to capture what they want God to be, and hold on to that image they have built as if it is the real thing.

We often talk about how easy it is to find ourselves worshipping things that are not God—things like money, opportunity, power, fame, relationships, social status, nation, celebrity, sports, nostalgia. And that is true. We need to be aware of just what story our lives tell—where is our time and money and energy going, and how does that relate to following Jesus? But there’s another, far more insidious, form of idolatry that I think is shown by this story. It isn’t only about placing something other than God as the focus of our lives, it’s about solidifying what we think God should be and do into a statue we can carry around but will never change. We take the One true God, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer and sustainer, with all the complexity and possibility of love incarnate…and flatten it into something that works for us but bears little resemblance to the original. God cannot possibly be captured or contained in a stagnant medium, because God is the God of the living, always working for a new creation where everyone experiences abundant life, and because the promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” is always growing and flexing as the people’s lives change over time and travels.

That’s what Moses reminded God up on that mountain that day. “Remember the promise you made to Abraham and Sarah? Remember your relationship with Isaac and Rebekah? Remember the wrestling and blessing you did with Jacob, and the promise you made to all his sons and daughters? You are a God who keeps promises.” And God remembered…and changed God’s mind, choosing faithfulness over rejection, choosing mercy over judgment, choosing love. Because that is what God does…and what God is free to do, whatever we think of the choice.

This is good and beautiful news. It is also hard news, because it can be difficult to come to terms with the freedom and sovereignty of God when we are so bound to what we believe God is like and what Love means. When we have decided what God can and cannot do, who God can and cannot call, how God can and cannot love or save…we have made an idol—a false image that we have carefully shaped to be unchanging and predictable and reliable, something we think we can trust. Too often what is most reliable about this image is that it makes God out to value the same things we value, and to dislike the same things we dislike, and to love within the same boundaries we allow. But behind this image is a real, living God who won’t be trapped in our beliefs and words any more than God will be contained in a statue or a picture or a box or a tomb.

But it’s also hard because we do this same thing—flattening reality into ideologies we don’t question and refuse to believe can change—with other parts of life too.

We have hardened our conception of what it means to belong to a political party until we can’t see or accept when things have changed.

We have a pretty solidified image of our elected officials or candidates, insisting they are who we say they are, whatever evidence is available to the contrary.

We have turned sexuality and gender identity into a single image of predatory lust that makes it impossible to see multi-faceted human beings who long for love and acceptance.

We have dug in our heels and insisted racism and sexism are over and this is as far as we’re willing to go, and everything beyond this line is dismissed as “just being politically correct.”

We have claimed that there is just one meaning to the words “black lives matter” or “Muslim” or “refugee” or “Christian” or “pro-life” or “feminist” or “American” or “civil rights” or “freedom”…

the list goes on and on of ways our society, our churches, and each of us have solidified our limited understanding into a statue we can point to, insisting there’s no change to be had, that the bounds of our understanding of normal and good are also God’s. Our idols, just like the golden calf, provide a sense of comfort and stability, an illusion of control in a world where everything seems to be falling apart. And, like Jonah when God changed his mind about destroying Ninevah, we will have to come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t play by our rules, and that is actually good news—for us and for the whole world.

God is Love, and Love will not be bound by what we think God can and cannot do, and will not consent to live in the carefully constructed belief systems we have built. As 2 Timothy says, “the word of God is not chained.” Instead God asks us let go of our idols and join in the dance of doing a new thing. In God we trust, not because God can never change, but because our God is living and active, breathing life, creating community, feeding and healing, freely choosing to keep promises time and again, to be faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, both ever-changing and ever-the-same—no matter what we think about that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Posted on October 9, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Starry Night--a sermon on Genesis 15

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Starry Night
Genesis 15.1-6
18 September 2016, NL3-2, H1-2 (In God We Trust)

When God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home in Ur and go to a new land, they went without question, believing God’s promise of descendants as numerous as grains of sand, trusting that God would use them to bless the whole world. When the camp grew too large for the land to sustain all the herds and people, Abram’s nephew Lot took his part of the family and animals, and went to settle in another area. During a war between Canaanite tribes, Lot was kidnapped by raiders. Abram took his men and went to battle the hostile tribe, rescuing Lot and all his family and their possessions. Abram then refused to take any of the spoils of war, returning home having received only a blessing from the high priest of the area where Lot lived. We pick up the story from there, in Genesis 15, which can be found on page __ in your pew Bible if you’d like to follow along.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

~~~~~

They did all the right things.

They married and built a life—by most accounts a successful life with many animals and people, though no children, which meant Sarah was considered a failure.

They heard God’s call and followed—God said “go” and they went, without knowing where or why exactly.

They believed God’s promise—land, heirs too numerous to count, blessing for the world.

They looked out for their family, rescuing nephew Lot and the others who’d been captured in battle.

But still…a fairly major part of the picture was missing.

There were no children.

That part of the promise where God said Abram and Sarai would be a great nation, with so many descendants they would fill the whole earth…it was not only not fulfilled, it was impossible. They were in their 80s now, and their life and future were less secure than ever.

They probably thought about it every day. They’d done everything right, followed all the directions…perhaps they even went back over their memories, year by year, wondering where they’d gone wrong to end up in this situation. How did they get to this point, where all they’d worked for would be left to a slave because there were no children to inherit? They never thought this was how it would turn out.

And now here’s God, promising yet again “your reward shall be very great.” And I can practically hear Abraham’s sarcastic “thanks a lot, God”…because what good is a great reward if there’s no one to pass it on to? There’s no one to remember when he’s gone, no one to carry on the legacy of promise or even just of hard work. So there’s no point in collecting more stuff or more wealth, because soon it will all be over anyway. What can God possibly give that would matter to someone whose family has no future?

I suspect many of us have had some variation of this feeling—wondering if all the work we’ve put in might be for nothing. Maybe because life just hasn’t gone according to plan. Maybe because there’s no next generation to pick up the things that have been important to us. Maybe because we’re struggling in ourselves, wondering if God’s promise is really true, or if that really was God’s call we followed or some other voice.

One of my favorite things about this story is how blunt Abram is. He barely lets God get a word in edgewise as the accusing words tumble out—“what will you give me? You promised children, but there are none. I had to come up with someone to put in my will, because you didn’t.” He point blank says that God has fallen down on the job, has broken the promise, and that has real consequences. He doesn't mince words, or try to be nice, or flatter God…he just says what he’s feeling.

And God answers him. God doesn’t gloss over Abram’s worries or frustration or grief, and doesn’t just reiterate the previous promise as if Abram hadn’t heard the first time. There are no platitudes or clichés here. God meets Abram right where he is—sad and angry and tired and confused.

And there, with Abram’s accusation hanging in the air between them, God ushers Abram out of the tent and points him to the starry night.

After speaking specifically to the Eliezer question, God lifts Abram’s eyes out of the swirling vortex of despair he’d thought his way into, and told him to look at the swirling expanse of the universe instead. Abram looked up and saw light that came from thousands of years ago, shining in the sky. He saw the milky way, like a carpet runner across the sky. He saw millions and millions of stars…each placed there by the same God who was now speaking with him.

Think for a moment about the starry night sky. We can’t see it very well here, but even though we have obscured it with our own lights, it’s still there. Thousands of generations have passed since that light began to move toward us. And there is nothing we can do to stop it from twinkling for a thousand more generations after us.

Look into the sky, God says—try to count. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

That is what I have in mind for you.

God answers Abram, not with the pragmatic solution he’d hoped for, but with the gift of insight into God’s plan—which is far bigger than anything we can count or imagine. The practical part of the answer comes later, well after they try to take matters into their own hands and force God’s promise to their timetable. But along the way, every night, there’s the reminder: God’s intention is as long lasting as the stars, and as vast as the universe, and there is nothing we can do to stop it shining.

This answer seems to have worked for Abram, at least for the night. He cleared the air with God, and he caught a glimpse of God’s vision, and he trusted God’s word.

And then comes this little line: Abram trusted God, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. Remember that righteousness means to-be-in-right-relationship—so Abram trusted God, and God put Abram into right relationship with him.

But I learned this week that the Hebrew is actually kind of vague here. The translation we read today adds a word to clear it up, but in reality, it’s unclear. We read through the lens of the letter to the Hebrews, and assume it was the Lord who reckoned righteousness to Abram. On its own, the Hebrew simply says “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness”…and who is “he” and who is “him” is ambiguous. So there are some who say that it was Abram who reckoned God righteous—believing God was someone trustworthy and caring and real with whom he could be in right relationship.

Or perhaps it works both ways. God worked on Abram, and Abram worked on God, and between the two of them trust built up, and their relationship grew and matured. After all, a right-relationship will never be static, and it will certainly never be one-sided, or dishonest or inauthentic. Abram was painfully honest, and God listened and responded. Not the practical but shallow response Abram wanted right at that moment, but the response he needed to keep moving toward God’s goal. Together, Abram and God trusted each other.

And starry night after starry night, God’s promise is true, and God’s presence is real, and God’s compassion can never be extinguished…whether we worry about our future or our past, what we have done right and what we have done wrong, when we and God trust each other, it will be reckoned as righteousness. With God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen. 

Posted on September 18, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Grace Is Enough--a sermon on Galatians 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Grace Is Enough
Galatians 4.1-7, 21-5.1
21 August 2016, P2-6 (overflowing: trust)

 

Paul founded churches throughout the Roman province of Galatia—in modern day Turkey—during both his first and second missionary journeys. At some point after he moved on to other places, another group of missionaries arrived. These missionaries insisted that Gentiles who wished to follow Christ must also become Jews—they needed to be circumcised and to follow the Law of Moses. Paul had taught that this was unnecessary because salvation is about God’s action in Jesus Christ. The conflict within the church about this question was intense and volatile, Christians fighting with each other about the correct way to be a Christian or a church. The question of how to get into a right relationship with God was, and still is, an important question, and Paul addresses it by reminding the church of God’s promise and Christ’s work. The scripture reading from Galatians 4 can be found on an insert in your bulletin if you wish to follow along.

... 

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
   burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
   than the children of the one who is married.’

Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

 ~~~~~~

This is a pretty confusing passage of scripture. There’s a reason it’s never in the lectionary. I may have been over ambitious in choosing it, because frankly I just don’t like it very much. I wish Paul and chosen another way of making his point--one that wouldn’t be so easily misinterpreted. But he didn’t, so let’s refresh our memory of the story of Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael...

Sarah and Abraham had been promised a child, but they were very old and there was no sign of this promise being true, so Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham as a secondary wife, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Meanwhile, eventually Sarah did become pregnant and Isaac was born, just as God had promised. But Sarah’s jealousy got the better of her and she threw Hagar and Ishmael out, insisting they had no part in the inheritance that God was giving to Isaac. Out in the desert, God and Hagar had a conversation in which God promised Hagar that Ishmael would also father a great nation. In their later years, Ishmael and Isaac reunited at Abraham’s funeral.

It’s a story that hurts—God’s chosen people act in self interest and hate, excluding those they don’t like. In the end, God is good, but in the midst of the story that isn’t at all clear to Hagar, who is being abused by her mistress, seemingly with God’s consent. Why would Paul choose this story as a way to illustrate his teaching? The idea of “driving out the slave woman and her child” is, frankly, horrifying to our modern sensibilities. And even in the context of its original story, when Sarah kicked out Hagar and Ishmael, it was a selfish and fear-based action, not based in trusting God at all. And in using this allegory, Paul runs the risk of being misunderstood as saying that Jews are not God’s chosen people anymore, they should be driven out because they don’t have any share in the promise the way Christians do.

So, to be clear: he isn’t saying that. This is not a letter directed at a conflict between Christians and Jews, advocating that Christians are superior. This is a conflict between Christians and Christians, about what rules they have to follow in order to be saved.

The missionaries who had arrived sometime after Paul left Galatia were insistent that those who were not already Jews must become Jews in order to follow Jesus. They refused to allow uncircumcised people into the church’s worship or fellowship, saying they had to first commit to following the Law of Moses.

These are the people Paul compares to Hagar and Ishmael, who must be driven out. They are teaching that our actions are what influences God’s choice to love us. Hagar and Ishmael represent the part of the story where human beings take matters into their own hands, trying to force God’s promise to come true right now, rather than trusting God to follow through. To be circumcised and attempt to follow the law would be to declare that there is something human beings can or must do to be adopted into God’s family.

But, Paul says, the law cannot save…and indeed, the law cannot even truly be kept. It represents an attempt to earn God’s favor, which is impossible. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less. We are freed from trying to make our own way, and instead can live secure in the knowledge that through Christ, we are indeed beloved children of God. We can trust that we don’t have to be enough, because grace is enough.

It’s hard to imagine a church Paul started—founded on grace and inclusion, on the good news that when God looks at us, God sees us through the lens of Christ and his faithfulness—it’s hard to imagine them falling for this false teaching that they must do something to earn that grace. Paul made two trips to Galatia, teaching and modeling this new way of life and community that is possible because of what God has done. Why wouldn’t they trust the grace of God?

Though we might ask ourselves the same question. We are just as prone to falling into the trap of believing we have to do something to earn grace. It may not be circumcision anymore, but there are plenty of Christians who teach that we must all keep the laws of Moses…or at least, the ones they think are important. There are those who insist that we have to say the right words, or go to the right place, or have the right friends, or vote the right way, or exclude the right people, or else we aren’t really Christian. Even those of us who most firmly believe that grace is a gift and salvation is 100% God’s choice and God’s work still sometimes find ourselves thinking we have to be good in order for God to truly love us. It’s hard work to trust that grace is enough when everything else in life depends so much on our own choices and behavior, when our whole society is based around earning and deserving. It’s much easier to believe in ourselves, to trust that we are doing the right things, or at least that we’re sorry for doing the wrong things, than it is to trust the promise that Christ has set us free to be loved and to love. We want to do something, by which we mean we want to control something.

But Paul is emphatic on this point. “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Even the subconscious belief that we need to be good enough or that we need to do enough to be saved is slavery to the law, and we are people of grace. We are heirs of the promise, in the line of Isaac—the child born without any help from people, on God’s timeline and for God’s purpose. The promise is true, and we cannot change the reality that God’s love is for us, no matter what we have done.

For freedom Christ has set us free! Our lives are a reflection of our gratitude for all God has done for us, not an attempt to earn our way into heaven. “Freedom is a gift, not an achievement.”[1] And it is a gift that God has chosen to give us through Christ, from whom we have all received grace upon grace. Can we trust that grace is enough?

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] NIB p. 310

Posted on August 21, 2016 and filed under 2016.

The Shape of Life--a sermon on John 21

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
The Shape of Life
John 21.1-17, 25
14 August 2016, Pentecost 2-5 (overflowing: love)

 

The Gospel according to John is the last of the four gospels to be written—perhaps as much as 30 to 40 years after Mark wrote. John tells the story of Jesus from a cosmic perspective, looking at the big picture from before time until the end of time. It is a story primarily of God’s action—God’s word become flesh, God drawing people into relationship through Christ, God painting a picture of what life in the kingdom is like.

Today’s reading is from the very end of John, the epilogue in chapter 21. After Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning, he appeared three times to his other disciples, and this is the third of those encounters. It provides a nice bookend to Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, and it names disciples who were also named in the beginning, so the story ties the whole gospel together as one narrative. Just as the opening chapter of the gospel sets the stage, so the closing chapter reviews all the themes that John wants us to remember as we go to live as disciples. If you’d like to follow along, you can find the reading on an insert in your bulletin.

 

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

  Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

~~~~~

 

Over the course of my life so far, I estimate that I have had somewhere around 6,200 family dinners. Every night when I was growing up, each of us would take our seats—the same one every night—with my mom closest to the kitchen, of course. We would eat dinner and talk about stuff, and whenever one of us talked with our mouths full my parents would flick us on the cheek, or if we put our elbows on the table then we’d get a little flick of the elbow instead. My brother and I took turns being in charge of setting or clearing the table, helping with cooking and helping with clean up. And in addition to learning table manners, we heard and created family stories, absorbed values, and were shaped, night after night, into the people we have become.

At the time, it didn’t seem like anything special. It was just the way things were—every night, around the same time, we’d be at the table eating and talking and learning and sharing. And if someone else was at the house—friends or neighbors or family, whether just visiting for the afternoon or staying for the summer—they would have a place set for them too. Occasionally something would come up—baseball practice, orchestra rehearsal—and we would shift the time, but it was a rare thing to not eat together.

I couldn’t tell you now about the topics of conversation, or what we ate every day, or which tablecloth was out on any given night. All those nights, whether they involved chicken cordon bleu or hamburger helper, conversation about school or sports or hopes and dreams, run together into one picture of love and belonging and understanding what is expected of me as a part of the family. What seemed so ordinary has turned out, in retrospect, to be perhaps the most special and formative part of my growing up years.

I’ve been thinking about formative experiences because of something I read about this conversation between Jesus and Peter. Here they are, on the beach near the place where Jesus had previously fed a crowd of more than 5000 people with just a few loaves and fishes, and he has done it again, turning their scarcity into abundance and then feeding them with bread and fish baked over a campfire. Peter’s cloak was probably still damp from his excited hundred-yard-dash in the water from the boat to shore—so eager to see Jesus that he was caught in between his desire to be properly clothed to meet the rabbi and his desire to be there rightnow.

It had been at least a few weeks since that Easter morning encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and Jesus had since appeared to his disciples two other times. This third time held all the marks of being final—a completion of their time together. It was early in the morning, just like that first Easter, when Jesus found them in the midst of their emptiness. After a night of nothingness, there was suddenly an abundance of fish in the exact number that many people think was the number of known countries at the time, symbolizing the disciples fishing for people across the whole world. Jesus had fed them, just as he always did.

And then the after-breakfast conversation. Three times, Jesus asks Peter—do you love me more than the other disciples do? He calls Peter by name, and Peter recognizes the good shepherd’s voice and proclaims his love…but for Jesus, just saying “yes, I love you” isn’t quite enough. He wants to see love as alive as he is, so he gives Peter a task. And Peter, really, stands in for all of us as he hears Jesus’ command: to put our faith into practice. As one scholar said, “to love Jesus is to shape one’s life according to Jesus’ life.”[1] 

If you love me, Jesus says, your life should look like mine. The shape of your days should match the shape of my love. Having been found and fed, now you follow.

How do we shape our lives to look like Jesus’ life?

The shape of Jesus’ life is the shape of the cross. Just as the cross reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also reminds us how he lived his life, and gives us a shape on which to model our lives. When Jesus said that we are to love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, he drew for us a cross of vertical relationship and horizontal relationship.

Throughout the gospels we see Jesus constantly connected to God the creator—he goes off by himself to pray, nurturing that connection. Throughout the book of John especially, Jesus repeatedly says that anything he does comes from the Father, and the people who come to him are called first by God. He shows us what it means to love God with every fiber of our being.

At the same time he also models how to love our neighbor. He reaches out and touches people who are sick or unclean. He gathers together the hungry and feeds them. He goes out to the edges of society, and beyond, showing people how much God cares for them.

And we, who love Jesus, are to do the same. To draw the shape of our lives—not just our thoughts or feelings, but the way we live and move through the world—in the same shape Jesus did: simultaneously vertical and horizontal.

At the center of this shape is Christ, standing on a hillside or on the beach or in a kitchen, handing us the bread of life, showing us what this relationship looks like. The meals Jesus shares with people are an expression of his relationship with them, and that is still true. When we share a meal with our neighbors, we also share it with Christ. Every table is a reminder of God’s grace and abundance, and an opportunity to be formed and re-formed until our lives look more like Jesus’.

So what are the formative experiences of our Christian life? How are we formed—shaped—to live a life that looks like Christ’s?

At the family dinner table. Here, where Christ is the host, over and over again we hear the stories, we absorb the ethos, we come to understand how much we are loved and how we belong. We practice including strangers, and stretching to have enough for everyone, and being amazed at how much is provided. Sometimes it’s a fancy and special holiday or occasion, and most of the time it’s just the regular 6000 nightly dinners whose specialness may only be seen when we look at them all together, seeing how that pattern of life shapes us into who we are—children of God, growing into life with Christ, reaching up and reaching out, overflowing with love.

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible page 864

Posted on August 14, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Lovable--a sermon on Hosea 14

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Lovable
Hosea 14.1-9
31 July 2016, P2-3 (overflowing: healing)

 

The prophet Hosea lived in the mid-700s BC, and most of his words were directed toward the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the years leading up to being conquered by the Assyrian Empire. His poetry is full of metaphors, puns, and plays-on-words that aren’t always obvious to us in English. Most of Hosea’s book uses the metaphor of family to talk about God and God’s people. The covenant relationship between God and humans is like a marriage, or like a parent and child. It hurts when family members turn away, or when they behave in ways so contrary to the values we hold dear. That’s true for God too—God’s heart is grieved by the way God’s family has behaved. But because this family is formed by God’s covenant love, even after all Hosea’s message of condemnation, every poem ends with healing and hope. Today we are reading the last chapter of the book, Hosea 14 verses 1 through 9.

 

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
   for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take words with you
   and return to the Lord;
say to him,
   ‘Take away all guilt;
accept that which is good,
   and we will offer
   the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
   we will not ride upon horses;
we will say no more, “Our God”,
   to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.’

I will heal their disloyalty;
   I will love them freely,
   for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
   he shall blossom like the lily,
   he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
His shoots shall spread out;
   his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
   and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
They shall again live beneath my shadow,
   they shall flourish as a garden;
they shall blossom like the vine,
   their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
   It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
   your faithfulness comes from me.


Those who are wise understand these things;
   those who are discerning know them.
For the ways of the Lord are right,
   and the upright walk in them,
   but transgressors stumble in them.

~~~~~

Many of us are so accustomed to thinking of the Old Testament as being all anger and destruction, or boring repetition of names we can’t pronounce, that we forget that the same God we know in Christ is also God in the Old Testament. This summer as we have been reading, we’ve had lots of weeks where it felt like the body count was the most abundant thing about the people’s experience of God, or where we couldn’t see our way to grace through the litany of the different imaginative ways people have found to worship other gods.

But then we stumble on passages like this one. There are more of them than we think—it may be a sentence here and there, or a poem or paragraph in the midst of a frighteningly long recital of battles, but they’re there. Throughout scripture—from beginning to end—the beauty of God’s unending love is woven in.

Today, at the end of the book of the prophet Hosea, we get this beautiful image—God’s healing love will flow so freely that the people will blossom, their roots will grow deep, they will be fruitful and flourishing like olive trees and grape vines. God will be the dew refreshing the plants each morning, the shade under which they will dwell secure. Here, in the very last verses of a prophet who spoke such hard words just a few chapters ago, is the unconditional love, healing, and restoration that we know God to be.

And these images—blossom like the lily, beauty like the olive tree, roots like the forests of Lebanon, flourishing like a garden—are traditional images. They come from stories like the blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob and from poetry like the Song of Songs. Hosea isn’t the first to relay this promise from God—his words echo the same story God has been telling through Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi and Esther and Job and Josiah and Jeremiah and thousands of others, from the beginning.

In fact, the way God speaks in the middle of today’s reading: “I will heal…I will love…I will be like the dew…”—all those “I will”s are the same word as the word God takes as a name when speaking to Moses at the burning bush. “I am who I am”…or “I will be who I will be.” Here we see who God will be: healer, lover, provider. There in God’s name, revealed in Exodus chapter 3, is the reality that Hosea now reveals to the people, and to us: that through all the things we might do, God will be who God will be—and God chooses to be faithful to the covenant, even when God’s covenant partners aren’t. God chooses to forgive, even before we come forward with our confession. God chooses to seek us out, over and over, never giving up on compassion and love.

And eventually, we are found by grace…again and again. As the people are called to confess at the beginning of the chapter—when we look to human powers and systems to save us, God will find us with grace. When we build up military might and rely on it for our strength, God will find us with grace. When we turn to the idols we have made, whether in the form of statues or systems, money or ideals, God will find us with grace, and will breathe new life into us, giving us what we need to walk in the ways of the Lord.

God knows that we will stumble, and that we will need finding again. We sometimes forget that reality, and we think we can be righteous and faithful on our own. We rely on our willpower, and we castigate ourselves and each other for not living up to the rules. We create systems that tell us if we are being good enough or not, and rewards and punishments that we draw out of context from scripture and apply to the afterlife, or to the prosperity or hardship we experience in this one. But God tells us the truth in verse 8: “your faithfulness comes from me.”

If we are able to be faithful, it is because God is faithful.

We love because God first loved us.

Or, as Desmond Tutu said at the top of the bulletin today: God says “you are lovable because I love you.”

Not because we made ourselves lovable. Not because we said the right words or did the right things. We are lovable because God loves us. Because God is love.

Yes, God is angry in some of these stories we have read this summer. But as many of us know, anger is rarely the primary emotion—it’s the symptom of something else. The book of Hosea offers us a possibility: that anger is part of God’s grief. God longs for the kind of relationship with the creation that is founded on mutual care, on justice and peace, on love. That’s the basis of the covenant—God has demonstrated love and care for us, has enacted justice and offered peace…and our side is supposed to be to do the same. Because we have been loved, we are to love others. Because we have been cared for, we are to care for others. Because we have experienced justice and peace, we are to create it for others. God is longing for a world where what God offers to us then overflows through us into the whole world.

When that doesn’t happen, God grieves. And sometimes that looks like anger—calling us to account for the ways we have held up the streams of living water, hoarding them for ourselves or diverting them for other uses, and for the times when we have attributed God’s blessings to ourselves or to other gods of our own design and so have failed to be grateful and to pass them on. But through the angry moments, there is a deeper truth: God has no intention of giving up on God’s people. God is faithful, and it is from God that we learn to be faithful too.    

God’s promise is true: God’s care for us extends from roots to blossoms, cultivating us in faith, hope, and love until we flourish like the garden of Eden. We are found by grace, healing overflows, forgiveness is already real, and we are constantly being restored as partners in God’s covenant. We are lovable, because we are loved.

Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Posted on August 3, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Hope in the Face of Fear--a sermon on Jeremiah 42

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Hope in the Face of Fear
Jeremiah 42.1-12
24 July 2016, P2-2 (overflowing: hope)

The events of today’s reading happen shortly after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had defeated the Israelites, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried their king, officials, leaders, priests, and well-off people away into exile. The people left behind were either too poor to be of interest to the Babylonians, or were military men who had fled out into the countryside to escape.

Just before the people came to Jeremiah in today’s story, they discussed their options, and decided it would probably be best if all of them who were left went out of the land and down into Egypt. Their own land had been ruined by war, so a famine was likely. Their cities were rubble, and the government and artisans and people with resources were all gone. Egypt was the opposite direction from Babylon, and far out of reach of Nebuchadnezzar, so felt safer. Having figured all this out, they come to the prophet to seek God’s blessing on their decision, as we read in Jeremiah 42, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you’d like to follow along.

Then all the commanders of the forces, and Johanan son of Kareah and Azariah son of Hoshaiah, and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, ‘Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the Lord your God show us where we should go and what we should do.’ The prophet Jeremiah said to them, ‘Very well: I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.’ They in their turn said to Jeremiah, ‘May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the Lord your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God.’

 At the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Then he summoned Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces who were with him, and all the people from the least to the greatest, and said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your plea before him: If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, as you have been; do not be afraid of him, says the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to rescue you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, and he will have mercy on you and restore you to your native soil.

~~~~~~~~~

The world was falling apart. First, the king and all the ruling class and the religious leaders, along with the merchants and artisans, had been carried away to Babylon, and a puppet king installed. Then, when he also refused to listen to the prophet and insisted on going his own way, the Babylonian army had come and camped around Jerusalem, laying siege to the city for 17 months before finally breaking through and destroying everything—pulling down buildings, including the Temple, setting fire to the city, and tearing down the city walls. The entire Israelite army was either killed or ran away. The Babylonians looted the Temple and the city, and carried off all that bronzework we heard about a few weeks ago, and all the gold and silver ritual dishes, and also the rest of the merchants, officers, Temple staff, secretaries, and advisors who had come to live in the city in the intervening decade. Second Kings ends the story of the battle with the simple statement “So Judah was exiled from its land.”

Those who are left—the officers who deserted during the battle, making their way back to the ruined city, the poor people left behind to work the land, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar—have watched their whole world turn upside down. Their leaders have failed them. The economy is in shambles, the environment is a disaster, and their understanding of themselves as chosen and blessed by God, the best nation, has been shaken.

Into this anxious and angry community, the newly appointed governor tries to speak calmly, encouraging the people to live in this new reality and make a way forward.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord, saying the same thing: stay here in your land, build and plant, and God will build you up and plant you here—no more tearing down, no more plucking up. Live here now, and be God’s people here and now, and don’t be afraid.

The people, though, can’t hear it. They shout that the prophet is lying, God would never say that. They insist that the governor is corrupt because he was appointed by the king of Babylon, so they kill him over the dinner table. And then they get together and talk about how good things used to be, and how they just want to feel that way again—safe and prosperous and blessed.

It’s like they are re-living the exodus, channeling their ancestors insisting that it was better back in Egypt when they sat by the pots and ate their fill.

But they are so blinded by their fear that they can’t see—they can’t see how their memory of the past is colored by their anxiety, they can’t see forward, so they decide to run away. They’ll go back to Egypt, as far from the stranger king as possible, reaching way way back to their roots…and then, maybe, they’ll be safe.

They come to Jeremiah for prayer with this plan already in mind, anticipating that he’ll offer them God’s blessing. They insist that they’ll do whatever God says, as long as Jeremiah tells them everything. They insist so vehemently that it feels suspicious, actually, like they may be covering their anxiety with lots of words, babbling almost. Protesting too much, perhaps.

Jeremiah knows, and God knows, they’re not going to obey. But Jeremiah takes them seriously anyway. He goes to God and prays—for ten days, asking God for guidance. That’s a long time in an anxious space, with people stewing in their fear. It’s hard to wait, especially when it feels like the world is falling apart and we have to do something RightNow. Jeremiah doesn’t rush, though—he isn’t afraid to listen for what God is truly saying, and to take the time to be certain before speaking.

When the word comes, Jeremiah knows it won’t be well received, but he speaks it anyway. He offers God’s words of hope: I will build you up, I will plant you, do not be afraid, remain in this land.

It’s a beautiful vision: God says “I am with you.”

Spoiler alert: the people can’t see this vision. Their eyes and minds and hearts are clouded by fear—fear of invasion, fear of hunger, fear of each other. They cannot hear quiet truth, or carefully considered words. They long for the way things were, and they don't want to do the hard work of building God’s new future when it seems easier to go back, so they instead insult Jeremiah and his secretary, calling them liars and other names. And they pack up Jeremiah and Baruch into the already loaded caravans and carry them off to Egypt too.

In the face of fear, the people could not choose hope.

It takes courage to be hopeful when the world is falling apart. When everything is upside down, and our self-image is shattered and we aren’t sure what’s coming next, and our minds are full of images of the good old days, it is hard work to look for God’s presence and hope amidst the ruins of our assumptions and anxiety. And it’s hard to pray honestly, as Jeremiah did. Many of us are tempted to take the path of the people—asking God to bless the side we are already on, rather than asking God to open our hearts and minds and wills to walk God’s way…and then to wait for God to reveal the path, even while we are afraid of what might happen.

In the world at any given moment, there’s plenty to be afraid of. And there are people all around encouraging us to fear our neighbors, the possibilities of the unknown, the future, the government, nature, other countries, other religions, other political parties. We are constantly inundated with messages of fear, and it’s easy to slip into “it was better before when we were in Egypt” mode. It’s easy to join the throng in putting our trust in things other than God, taking matters into our own hands because God is too slow to answer, or because the word of God is too hard to follow.

But there’s also plenty of reason to hope. Even in the face of fear, we can choose hope. We can live as if we believe God’s promise is true: Do not be afraid, I am with you. We can be careful not to be blinded by the anxiety peddled by our leaders and our media, we can insist that they be truthful in their dealings with us, and we can refrain from automatically disbelieving anything we don’t already agree with. We can act with integrity—a key theme of the book of Jeremiah—and make sure that what we do and how we behave lines up with what we say we believe. We can do our part to make the world look a little more like the kingdom of God—treating everyone, even our enemies, with kindness and respect; caring for God’s creation even when it isn’t convenient; looking out for people on the margins and helping those in need even when it costs us more than we get back. We can refuse to participate in groups or systems that do not recognize the image of God in every person no matter their race or religion, and instead create spaces where all are truly welcome. We can choose hope, in the midst of all the fear that floats around and threatens to overwhelm us. It will take enormous courage, and we may sometimes have to do it even when we aren’t feeling it, but we can, and we should, be people who embody the good news of God, true in every time and every place: do not be afraid, I am with you.

May it be so. Amen.

 

Posted on July 26, 2016 and filed under 2016.

The Word of Whose Lord? A sermon on Jephthah's Daughter

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
The Word of Whose Lord?
Judges 11.29-40
12 June 2016, P1-5 (gifted for god’s purpose), Bible in 90 Days 19

 

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

 

This is one of those stories that makes me hesitant to say “the word of the lord, thanks be to god.” When things like this—and there’s plenty more, and worse, in the rest of Judges—appear in the middle of our holy scripture, I have to wonder how they could possibly be part of our story of good news. How is a story of domestic violence, of child abuse, a part of our story of God’s desire for all creation to know peace and wholeness?

Over the centuries, people feeling this discomfort have tried to solve the story, to make it okay. They have suggested that she wasn’t really killed, in spite of the fact that it says her father “did with her according to the vow he had made” and that vow involved the word that describes offerings that are entirely burned, with no part leftover. They have used her as an example of faithfulness and appropriate womanly submission. They have looked at the ritual of girls going out to lament every year and said the story creates a rite of passage for young women to die to girlhood and emerge as women ready to be married. They have tried to explain away the suffering and terror of this text and its implications.

But it can’t really be explained away. Even God is silent.

What happened here? How did we get from the Torah’s constant refrain about caring for women and children to the place where a father sacrifices his child and no one stops him? In a society that measures its faithfulness by how it treats the marginalized, how could this happen? In a religious community that cares so much about family, inheritance, and living in the land, how is it possible for a man to murder not only his daughter but his family name and inheritance?

As is often the case, it begins with a desire to be powerful and the instinct to take matters into our own hands.

This man had been cast out by his half brothers, looked down upon as inferior, and made to be an outsider. When they needed his strength and his fighting men, they came crawling back with promises to make him their leader. He agreed, if God would give the enemy into his hand…and the spirit of the Lord came upon him, which is the code in Judges for “God guaranteed the victory.”

But the spirit of the Lord wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to hedge his bets, make absolutely certain that things would go his way, so he made a promise. This is the kind of promise I mean when I say that we should never bargain with God, because if we had to keep our end of whatever deal we struck, we would be in trouble. He tries to bribe God: if you let me win this battle, I’ll make a burnt offering of whatever I see first when I get home.

Remember: there’s no need for this bargain, and God cannot be bribed. God didn’t ask for anything in return for the gift of the Spirit. The vow tells us the man doesn’t trust the spirit of the Lord to be enough.

He wins a victory like no one has ever seen…and he believe that his initiative in making a deal with God has bought him the victory…and now believes he has to keep his end of the deal.

In those days it was common for livestock to live in the ground floor and courtyards of homes, so maybe he thought he’d see an animal first. But then again, he would have also known that ever since the exodus, when Miriam led the women in dancing and singing after the Egyptian army was drowned, the women of the Israelites have come out to meet returning victors with tambourines and dancing. It was a custom meant to honor the warriors and the God who gave them victory.

There’s no honor to be had this time, though. After he takes the traditional abuser’s route of blaming her for what he has to do to her, he says “I cannot take back my vow.” And she agrees, her own trust highlighting his lack of faith.

Here’s where we get into trouble, isn’t it?

I cannot take back my vow.

Or it might sound like this:
God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Or: The scripture is clear.

We think it’s a sign of faithfulness. We admire ourselves and each other for standing up for what we believe in. And we sacrifice God’s children to our self-serving limited human understanding.

We want to think this is no longer happening. It’s easier to look back on stories like this with horror, and much harder to look at them as a mirror, showing us the ways we still insist that what we think we know is definitely God’s command and reflecting back to us the uncomfortable truth that our pride will not let us see the alternatives to some vows we have made in our past.

There were alternatives, of course. I’m not sure they would be immediately obvious if we weren’t reading straight through the Bible in such a short period of time, but they jumped out at me this week: Leviticus 5 has a provision for what to do if you make a careless or rash vow that then you cannot keep. And Leviticus 27 tells what to do if the sacrifice you vowed to make is something that cannot be sacrificed. Both offer options ranging from giving a monetary offering to a clean and appropriate animal in place of the illegal one. And child sacrifice—and all human sacrifice—is decidedly and repeatedly forbidden, so this definitely counts as a vow that cannot be kept.

In other words, “I cannot take back my vow” is simply not true. It is, instead, a half-truth. Or a limited understanding of the law. And like abuse still is today, it is based in human pride, in human desire for power, and human unfaithful action. It is a man reading his own words as the word of the Lord, and sacrificing a woman to his own ego. And it is a community saying nothing, because in a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes, what is there to say to someone who thinks they are doing the right thing, even when it is so obviously the wrong thing?

And so we allow our LGBT children to be sacrificed to our limited human understanding. We allow our children of color to be sacrificed to our comfortable whitewashing of history and our insistence on following rules that were set up to benefit some at the expense of others. We allow thousands of people to be sacrificed to our contemporary understanding of a few sentences in documents hundreds of years old. We allow the vulnerable and marginalized people of the world to be sacrificed to maintain our own supposedly blessed position. We allow 1 in 4 women to be victimized and we, like the man in this story, blame it on her. We pretend that none of these things are related. And when we see it happening to our neighbors, we say nothing, because everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

The story of this lost daughter is like the canary in the coal mine—it shows just how much the society had unraveled, how far they had strayed from their identity and purpose as God’s people. The man receives God’s gift of love and power, but he cannot trust God’s word, and so his life reflects only his own brokenness. He takes God’s good gifts of skill and camaraderie and the spirit’s presence, and he twists them for his own purpose, using those gifts to serve his desire for revenge against his half brothers, his desire for power and status in a community that once cast him aside…and it is his daughter, and their family’s future, that pays the price.

There is no happy ending to this story. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, God doesn’t step in to provide a ram and stop the father’s hand. And the people of God don’t step in to remind him that there are other ways to understand and follow God’s law. The basic flaw in the assumption that we can be faithful on our own, without a community to support and challenge us, is made abundantly clear, as there is no recourse and no accountability, only one man’s inflexible view of his own understanding of God’s law and gift—a view that is the opposite of God’s will for the world.

The only glimmers of light come from the women. The daughter is the only one to utter words of compassion or faith. Her friends are the ones who model what God’s community is supposed to be like, lamenting and supporting each other. The generations of Israelite women who carry on the tradition are the ones who rescue the daughter from the unthinkable fate of being forgotten by her people and left out of God’s promise.

These women have no names in the story—perhaps because they were not considered important enough to remember. Or perhaps because without names, we have no way to narrow their story and insist this is one isolated instance of violence. Since we do not know her name, we can see our daughters in her story, and we can take care that no one is sacrificed to our arrogance or apathy. Since we do not know the names of her friends or the names of the women who carried on her memory, we can see our neighbors and ourselves, and we can practice saying the names of those who have been lost, supporting each other in solidarity and lament, keeping memory alive when our culture would rather we forget and move on.

And perhaps more importantly, we can join the voices of the prophets, the rabbis, the sages, and even the authors of Judges who insist God had nothing to do with this, and condemn the ways we sacrifice each other. We can insist that it is not a man’s right to do with a woman whatever he pleases. We can insist that it is not a parent’s right to do with their children whatever they please. We can commit ourselves to stand up and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We can be a part of changing a culture that marginalizes some at the expense of others. We can be the village that helps raise the children, so no one is at the mercy of one person’s understanding of the world. We can offer the alternative, expansive, inclusive vision of God’s way. We can work for a world where no one feels the need to use force to prove themselves, or buy God’s favor, or secure their own social position. We can listen to those who lament, and we can join the lament without explaining it away. We can hold each other accountable when our lives reflect anything other than the goodness of God. We can say, and say again, and live as if it is true, that violence is not God’s will for women, or children, or any part of creation.

Then we will be listening to the word of the Lord, and using our gifts for God’s purpose. May it be so. Amen.

 

Posted on June 12, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Expanded Inheritance--a sermon on the daughters of Zelophehad

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Expanded Inheritance
Numbers 27.1-11
5 June 2016, Pentecost 1-4 (gifted for god’s purpose)

 

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, 3‘Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 4Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.’

5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 7The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.’

 

 

How is it going with reading the Bible in 90 days? Today is day 12…and tomorrow is a catch-up day, so if you’re behind, this is your moment! I confess that while I was on vacation I was so disconnected from the actual date that I forgot to start reading on time…and I didn’t notice until one day there was a facebook conversation about being on day 8. I kept trying to catch up by reading at cafes and pubs, but what actually happened was that I talked with friends and got all wrapped up in the delicious food instead. So I am here as living evidence that it is possible to catch up tomorrow, because I read all of days 1 through 12 yesterday.

Granted, I didn’t do anything else, except cook dinner. But still. If you haven’t started yet, this is your chance to get caught up!

Reading through the first four books of the Bible in one day made one thing far more clear than it had ever been before, even the last time I did the Bible in 90 Days. In the midst of all the minute details of what color the curtain in the holy tent of meeting should be, and how many silver bowls each tribe contributed to offerings, and the list of each place the Israelites camped during their 40 years in the wilderness…the story is full of people’s names. I know we know that, because we often think of them as impossible to pronounce, the kind of things we gloss over because they slow us down while we try to figure them out. But really, these first four books are bursting with names. Most of the names are men, of course. They are listed according to their family and clan and tribe, generation after generation.

I often tell people we shouldn’t skip over the genealogies that tell us of Jesus’ family tree, as told in Matthew and Luke, because that is also our family tree—these are our ancestors, and when we remember them we also find our place in the family story. But those are much shorter than some of these whole chapters of nothing but the names of men and their sons and grandsons and nephews and cousins. I really believe all these names are important, but it was only when I started thinking about asking my rabbi friend what she preaches on when these long sections of nothing but names and offerings are read in a worship service—every year!—that I understood more of what’s going on here:

This is a story of belonging.

Each and every one of those people—all 603,000 men, plus women and children—is known and belongs. Their story matters, even if we can’t pronounce their names. They are part of something God is doing. They may have been whiny and annoying, they may have been complainers, they may have been people who worked hard and didn’t make waves. They may have been great craftsmen, or gifted at animal husbandry, or a good teacher, or strong enough to carry the altar and all its furnishings from camp to camp. And their names, no matter which tribe they were from or which jobs they did, were worth taking the time and resources to write down and to pass on through the generations. Their presence in the community mattered.

So when we get to this story of Zelophehad’s daughters, we can see why their request was so important.

In order to get to this point, they would already have been through the system that Moses, at his father-in-law’s urging, set up for people to bring their grievances and questions to a local judge. Those local judges passed the hard cases up to Moses for a decision. These women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, knew the rules and regulations of their people. They understood that they were at the mercy of the men in their lives, and without any men they were in danger. But they also understood there was a larger problem going on, a problem of belonging. Their lack of both brother and father meant that they no longer belonged, and their whole family would be forgotten. And in the midst of a story that is all about remembering who we are and to whom we belong, that is a tragedy.

They were surely not the first women to be in this predicament. But just before they come forward, in chapter 26, we read about how the promised land was to be divided among tribes and clans and families, each plot assigned according to the number of people. The problem of belonging nowhere was about to be magnified by the problem of having no place in the promise that God had made to their ancestors. And so Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah work their way up through the system until they are standing in front of Moses at the tent of meeting. And they brazenly ask for exactly what they want: to inherit their father’s place in the community of God’s people.

Over the centuries of God’s story to this point, the people had become more patriarchal than the earliest stories suggest. The rules had built up, and now there was a careful system in place. According to those rules and that system, the answer should have been no. Based on the previous three books of law, these women should have been sent to marry and find their place that way. But that’s not what happens. Instead, each judge at each level of the system has taken them seriously. They are all aware of the seriousness of the problem, of a family of faithful Israelites being forgotten and left out of the promise. And so Moses goes into the tent and asks God face to face.

It was a risk, for the women to place so direct a challenge to the way we always do things. They were asking for the community to do something that had never been tried before. And God’s answer was: “the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying.”

In essence, God said to Moses: we have been too restrictive and closed and it is hurting my people. I don’t want anyone left behind, because each of them matters. Later, through the prophets, we will learn that God has all our names written on the palm of God’s hands—even the women who don’t have brothers or fathers. Even the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. Even the people who, according to our rules, don’t belong.

The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying. They shall receive the inheritance of their father.

In one little story—so easy to gloss over because the names are hard and it’s in the middle of a book that seems to be a never ending list of identical offerings from every tribe—everything changed. The inheritance of God’s people expanded. The meaning of belonging expanded. The understanding of God’s gift expanded. Because five women were willing to come forward and claim that they too are God’s chosen and beloved, to insist that they belong to God’s promise, the whole system was changed to recognize women as people who could inherit and own property, who could advocate for themselves and know that they mattered.

Ten chapters from now, the book of Numbers will end with a recap of these women, and a rule made that they may only marry within their tribe, so that the inheritance may not end up passed to another tribe. On the surface it feels like a re-assertion of male dominance and women as property, but looking deeper we can see how consistent it is: because what the women asked for was to belong, to have a recognized place among their people. So they remain within their people, and their inheritance does as well—because yes, it is about land, but it is also about identity. It is about carrying the name, and having their presence and contribution matter to the ongoing story God is telling through this particular people.

So when we read these stories—whether you start today and catch up on four books at a time, or whether you’ve been reading all along—pay attention to the names. Not only are they our ancestors in the faith, they are people God loved, people whose names and lives are worth remembering. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, and all the rest, remind us of the good news: that we belong to God, and each and every one of us matters.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Posted on June 6, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Essentials of Life--a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Essentials of Life
1 Corinthians 12.27-13.13
1 May 2016, NL2-34, Easter 6 (Everything is Different Now), PADS celebration

 

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 

 

Back in the early days of social media, when the idea of making friends over the internet was new, the websites where people set up their personal pages used to ask lots of questions that were designed to help people get to know each other. One question I still see sometimes on people’s profiles is “what are six things you couldn’t live without?”

It’s fascinating to see people’s answers, which range anywhere from the very literal—and these are real examples I saw over the weekend—(water, food, shelter, clothes, sun, sleep) to the self-conscious (God, Jesus, church, the bible, prayer, KLove) to the hilarious (spoons, nail polish, Meg Ryan films, pickles, the Cubs, comic books). Occasionally people answer with traits they feel they couldn’t live without: curiosity, resourcefulness, calm, listening, humor, spontaneity.

This is kind of what Paul is doing here in his letter to the church in Corinth. You may remember from last week that this was a church divided—they were arguing about which preacher to follow and who among them had the best spiritual gifts. Is it the people who speak in tongues? Or those who interpret what the others say? Is it the people who can work miracles, or who speak prophecies?

Paul writes to the church that all these gifts are needed, just as the body needs all its parts. No one gift makes someone more important—all of us in the body of Christ belong together, and we need each part. But ultimately, even all those things—knowledge, prophecy, generosity, teaching, healing, helping—all these gifts that the Spirit gives us so we can follow God’s call are non-essential. The essentials of life, the six things we, as the body of Christ, can’t live without, all boil down to one: love.

And this isn’t sentimental or romantic love. It’s not even really a feeling. Agape love is self-giving, it’s a choice, an action. It’s the way God loves us, which we see best when we look at the life of Jesus—love that shares life, walks alongside pain, touches the outcast, welcomes the stranger, carries the burden, dies rather than seeking its own way, and lives despite all our selfish human attempts to stop it.

And if we do not have love, all the rest doesn’t matter.

Paul uses the word “great”—strive for the greater gifts, the greatest of these is love. I always think of that to mean better, or best. This weekend—I’m a little slow at realization—it suddenly occurred to me that “great” also means “big”…so greatest also means “largest.” When I realized this, I felt a little bit ridiculous, because everything made so much more sense when I pictured love as the umbrella under which all the other gifts hang. Without love, the gifts of knowledge or healing or faith or humor or creativity or prophecy or teaching simply fall flat and useless. Or perhaps a better visual is more like the food pyramid—the base is love, and without that foundation, nothing else can stand. Sure, you can eat the other things on the pyramid, but without the base you still won’t be healthy. And the gifts of the Spirit will still be present, and we can try to use them, but if they don’t grow from a base of love, they won’t help at all.

The good news is, as we heard last week, God is love, and we belong to Christ. We already have love—God cannot help but love. We have received more of this self-giving active love than we can comprehend.

The hard news is that we then need to turn around and give it to others. Whether we feel love for someone or not, we need to love them the way Christ loves us, or else everything we say about our faith is meaningless.

This is what it means to grow up in faith. The childish ways divide people into categories, and base actions on how we feel about people in each category. There are better and worse, winners and losers, enemies and friends. It’s still a temptation—we think of people in categories and we have feelings about whole groups like Americans and foreigners, Christians and Muslims, poor and middle class, black and white, women and men, liberal and conservative. And then, depending on how we feel about the stereotype of the group, we treat people differently—and often with not much love for those in different groups than ourselves. But as we mature as people of God, we put an end to childish ways. We see that this duality is false, and we learn that God doesn’t care much how we feel about people, God cares that we love. This is the essential of life, the one thing we can’t live without—as individuals and as the body of Christ.

Each season team throughout the year chooses ways that we can love our neighbors with actions. Some seasons have collected money to fund water projects in northern Ghana, others put together opportunities for us to work together here in our neighborhood, others focus on special offerings that help when there are disasters or young people in need. Weput God’s love into action when we grow vegetables for our neighbors whose diets are mostly canned goods and when we spend time playing checkers with kids at school. This season we have been collecting items that are essentials of life for people in our community. Because, as Gandhi said, there are people whose needs are so great that God can only appear to them in the form of bread. Our neighbors who don’t have homes to go to need our love to take the form of socks and water bottles and granola bars and peanut butter sandwiches.

Last night was the final night of PADS for the season—beginning tonight, all those who have been going to churches for a dry place to sleep and a warm meal will be out on their own. The nights are still in the 30s and 40s and the ground is damp. For the past seven months, we have done our best to love our neighbors by greeting them with a smile, serving them dinner restaurant-style, with real dishes and silverware, using this space that previous generations built for us to keep people warm and dry. No one individual person could do it all. The leadership team (please stand) organized us all to work as one body. Hundreds of people have come through our doors as volunteers and guests. Many of you have spent hours downstairs, preparing meals, washing dishes, staying awake through the night, checking supplies and making trips to the store, welcoming new and returning guests and helping them get comfortable, playing with small children and talking with people who are spending their first night in a shelter. Many of you have strengthened the foundation with your prayers, your donations of food for breakfast and lunch, and your generous giving that helps us keep the building in good repair so that people have a warm dry place to sleep. Through many hands and feet, prayers and emails and phone calls, hours at the stove and the store, God is doing amazing things. The power of the Spirit is at work, and little by little, we see glimpses of God’s kingdom peeking through. Indeed, through all of you, we can see love that is patient and kind, not boastful or rude; love that endures and hopes and works for that hope. (you may be seated)

This is the essential of life for the body of Christ—the one thing we cannot live without, the greatest, biggest, most all encompassing gift: God loved us first, and showed us that love in the life of Christ, so we can love others, no matter how we feel about them.

May it be so.

Amen.

Posted on May 2, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Give My Love--a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Give My Love
Acts 3.1-10
10 April 2016, Easter 3, NL2-31

 

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

 

It’s a common scene, isn’t it? Someone on the sidewalk or in a doorway, asking for money. Thousands of years and miles don’t change the way people respond—to walk by, averting our eyes, maybe mumbling “sorry” as we pass. It’s easier if we don’t look, because then we don’t have to think about them as human beings, or as a picture of us if we two missed paychecks. It’s easier if we don’t look, because not looking also keeps us from full-on judging, so we don’t feel as bad afterward—we can forget much quicker as we walk on down the road or through the door.

In a religion where taking care of each other was supposed to be a central value, the very existence of the man at the gate of the Temple is an affront to all we say we believe…and yet there he is.

Peter and John, though: they stop. They look at the man with their full attention. They aren’t multitasking, or looking around for who might be noticing them, or wondering if there are about to be more people clamoring for their help. They look at the man, and they see him for who he is: a beloved child of God, part of the body of Christ.

He doesn’t see at first, though. Like many still today, he is not looking at them. He’s used to being stared at and looked down on, and he knows the best way to get a little help is to defer to his betters and not look up, but instead to look down with the shame appropriate to his station.

But Peter and John are having none of that. “Look at us” they say. Look at us. Look up. Let me see your eyes—let me see you, in all your wonder and hope and despair and shame and potential. They look the man in the eye, as equals. They elevate his status, long before they lift him up to walk—to truly look at someone, to truly see them and allow them to see us…that is the beginning of healing.

The man looked expectantly, though he could never have expected what they had to give. Peter and John didn’t have money, but they did have something else: they have been seen before. They have heard Jesus say to them “look at me”—they have looked him in the eye and experienced the wholeness they never thought possible, after all they had done and left undone. And they had heard his command: give my love to my people.

We say it all the time, don’t we? As we say goodbye to someone—give my love to your mother, give my love to the church, I miss them! Usually we just mean “say hello to”…but Jesus really means it: Give. My. Love.

That is what Peter and John have to give: the love of Christ, which always begins with him seeing us for who we really are and then reminding us what he sees, so we can learn to live according to his vision and his call.

Part of that call is to give his love to those we meet—to slow down and take our attention off our own self-important busy lives, to look people in the eye, to treat them with dignity and respect no matter who they are or what they have done or what we think of them, to offer them the same thing we have received: love beyond measure.

There was a story in the Tribune a few weeks ago, about a man named Nic who used to panhandle at an expressway entrance[1]. He has two jobs and an apartment now, and he’s clean from his addictions. He recently unexpectedly met a guy named Mike, who he used to see back in his panhandling days. Mike had always given him a little something, but more than that had learned his name and taken the time and energy to have a conversation. In the midst of all the people who sneered, or ignored, or were openly hostile, there were the few who seemed to care about Nic as a person, and he says “for people to stop and get to know me—it really helped get me through.” Sure, some of the money people gave went to drugs and alcohol. But the human connections led him toward help and powered him through to his clean and sober place today. Because people took the time to see him, to know his name, and to give what they had—sometimes a few dollars, and more importantly, attention.

Mike, even now knowing how his money was spent, says he has no regrets, because “I would rather live in a world where people attempt to engage than put on their blinders.”

This is the call of Christ: to engage. To take off our blinders and truly see people for who God created them to be—because in that seeing, we might just be the first step in healing. Imagine how different everything would be if we truly went through the world with eyes and hearts wide open, seeing as God sees? When we give someone, especially someone so different from us, our full attention, we also fulfill Christ’s command: give my love.

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/schmich/ct-panhandler-mary-schmich-20160225-column.html?track=ct_social_keywee_acquisition-subscriber_facebook_fb-post&kwp_0=119681&kwp_4=585010&kwp_1=305941

Posted on April 11, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Overcome--a sermon for Easter Day

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Overcome
Mark 16.1-8
27 March 2016, NL2-29, Easter

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

~~~~

Doesn’t this story seem to be missing something? The way Mark tells it, that first Easter morning had no hallelujahs, no singing, and no chocolate. Something seems off. If we can’t have a hallelujah brunch, couldn’t we at least have a nice neat happy ending?

But no, Mark gives us no happy ending. He stops writing right here: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

When the women woke up that morning, their first task was a trip to the market to buy the spices for the burial rituals. Usually that would have been done right away, but this whole thing happened so fast, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just a few days ago, they watched their friend betrayed by someone they trusted, then betrayed by his government, then—at least seemingly—by God. Jesus had cried out in the midst of his agony that God had forsaken him. The women were near enough to see the pain and to hear his voice…and near enough to see where he was buried as they rushed to roll the stone over the tomb before the Sabbath began…and near enough to know that the other disciples had all run away.

Those first few days after someone dies are like a deep fog. There are so many things to do, but it’s hard to think of anything other than what just happened. As they walked to the market, and then to the tomb, that morning, shuffling their feet and looking at the ground, overcome by grief, there was only one question on their minds: how can we do this? we are not strong enough. we can’t…but everyone else is gone.

I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have too—walking in the valley of the shadow of death, looking down, consumed with wondering how to do what needs to be done, overcome with grief. Sometimes I feel like that just reading the news and thinking about the world—so much brokenness and despair and darkness, it’s easy to be overcome with thoughts like the women had: how can we do this? I’m not strong enough…but who else will do it?

When they finally look up, the shock is enough to cut through the fog of grief—the stone is rolled away and the grave is open. Memories of Thursday and Friday tumble together with the possibility that someone has been here before them, someone whose plans did not involve anointing. After so much betrayal in such a short time, they must have feared the worst.

Instead they were the first to hear the best news ever spoken aloud: he has been raised, he is not here!

This is, of course, impossible.

Death is not reversible.

But what if it’s true?

Faced with this news—empty grave, talk of resurrection, reminders of what Jesus said before—the women are overcome with fear, and they do the only sensible thing: they run away.

It can’t be true, of course. Because if it is, then that means all kinds of other things are turned upside down as well. If Christ has overcome death, then that must also mean that the hate and violence and fear and betrayal so prevalent in this world must not be as powerful as they seem. If Christ is alive, then that must mean everything else he said is true too. Including the part about loving our enemies…like those people who killed him in the first place. Including the part about forgiveness. Including the part about sharing what we have and caring for those on the margins and refusing to fight back with swords.

If it’s true, then everything is different now.

All the rushing thoughts, swirling around in their heads as they run…that’s what fear looks like. Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome are a textbook example of how both flight and freeze can happen at the same time—fleeing physically, frozen mentally, overcome with fear.

And they say nothing to anyone.

Now we see something else missing in this story: Jesus. The women see the empty tomb and they hear the good news, but they do not see Jesus. Instead they hear only that he has gone ahead of them, even as they run away.

Over the years people have been uncomfortable with Mark just ending the story there, and they’ve added little wrap-ups to try to make it a happier ending and to have Jesus fix everything. But Mark’s whole gospel has been so real and human, and the ending is no different. This is how the story ends—with Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James, overcome by fear.

Or rather, this is how the beginning ends.

The very first sentence of Mark, you may recall, is not about a manger or wise men or a star. Mark starts right in with the adult Jesus, opening with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, Son of God.”

This is just the beginning. Chapter One of the good news has come to an end, and chapter two, with God’s word of unconfined love alive in the world, is beginning.

Mark has written his story as far as he can tell it; the next part will be far beyond even his incredible writing abilities. The Marys and Salome were looking down, and at the tomb they looked up…but soon they will look out. The words “He is going ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there” sink in, and the possibilities begin to open up. The good news that God refuses to stay locked up in any of our boxes, even the ones we think are so permanent, like death—this good news will follow them no matter how fast they run, it will be ahead of them when they arrive…and the good news is stronger than fear. They cannot help but speak—whether in whispers or shouts or songs—and they will not be the only ones. The truth of God’s love overcoming even the worst humanity can do will spread like wildfire. Even today, the Spirit overcomes our grief and our fear with good news. God’s grace is still alive and at work. God is still doing a new thing. God is still shattering stones and shedding graveclothes, and God is still calling people to go out and tell the story. What seems like the end is only the beginning—Love is still the greatest power in the universe, even stronger than death.

Even if we leave this place wondering what it all means, afraid to share what we have seen, or planning to just head back into our normal lives, we will still be overcome, because the Spirit of God is not content for our silence to let fear or grief have the last word. There is a story to tell, and we are the ones to tell it, one way or another: he has been raised, he is not here, and he is going ahead of you—go, and you will see him!

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Posted on March 31, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Actions Speak Louder--a sermon for March 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Actions Speak Louder
Mark 12.28-44
6 March 2016, Lent 4, NL2-26

 

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,

“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
   until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”

David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.

 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

~~~~~~

I’m sure most of us know that due to a combination of factors, thousands of people in Flint, Michigan have been drinking water contaminated with high levels of lead, and there appears to be no timeline for when the water can be made safe again. In the meantime, churches and schools and clubs and individuals across the state and the country have been donating bottled water and filters, trying to help, because many of the residents of Flint have no extra money to spend on those things.

About an hour and a half west of Flint is a prison. And last month, during a class at that prison, a man stood up in front of 250 of his fellow prisoners and gave an impassioned plea: would they give some money to help the people in Flint? Some of them come from that city, or from cities like it. Some have family and friends there, or can imagine something similar happening to their families. Would they help?

Most of the inmates earn about $10 a month at their prison jobs, which they use to buy toiletries, phone cards, and supplies at the prison commissary. Every single one of the 250 men at that meeting pledged to give at least $3/month—30% of their income—to send water and filters to the people affected by this crisis.[1]

At a prison in Indiana, the men asked the chaplain if they could designate a Sunday offering for the people of Flint, and at that service these people who earn $1.25 per day doing laundry, working in the cafeteria, and producing materials for the state, gave $2,000.[2] Previously, they have given that amount also to dig a well in Mozambique, and to help people in Haiti.

I couldn’t help but think of today’s scripture reading, which takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ last day out teaching in public in the city. Not only because of the striking parallels with the ways we usually understand the story of the widow who makes her tiny yet enormous offering, but also because these stories feel like a picture of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, from an unlikely—we might say upside down—perspective.

When the scribe asks Jesus his question, it seems sincere. There’s no hint here of a trick question or an attempt to trap Jesus—there’s a man genuinely interested in the answer. Which commandment, of the 613 in the Torah, is most important? And Jesus answers without missing a beat, quoting Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 together, and telling us that these two commands, to love God and love our neighbor, are the lens through which we should interpret all the other commandments and stories. If we are reading scripture or our traditions in a way that do not lead us to increased love of God and love of our neighbor, then we are not reading correctly—because it is on these two commandments that all the others depend. Therefore it is not optional for us to practice loving God and loving our neighbors—or even loving God by loving our neighbors.

As if to illustrate his point, a widow enters the Temple courts. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the society—in a time when women had no legal standing, a woman with no husband to take care of her, protect her, or look out for her interests was dependent on the kindness and care of others. Scripture is bursting with commandments, exhortation, and admonishments to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. The three are almost always grouped together as a kind of shorthand for “those on the margins, those easily taken advantage of, those in need.”

And into the Temple courts comes a widow who has only 2 small coins. Those two coins were worth about a sixtieth of a laborer’s daily wage, and they are all she has.

How does this happen?

In a society where caring for widows is a crucial part of the religious and cultural fabric, how does the widow become so impoverished?

The scribes, the legal experts, who could read and write, were charged with handling contracts and financial matters. They may have been dishonest in their dealings, especially with those who wouldn’t have anyone else to advocate for them. Jesus accuses them of devouring widows houses…perhaps they used their position to line their own pockets and improve their own position at the expense of others.

But there’s a lot of money going into that treasury. People put in large sums, and still had plenty left. Where was that money going? It certainly wasn’t going to support the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. In fact, the one who should be cared for by this system still had to give to it, even though it was apparently unjust.

We usually think of the widow as a model for generosity—though it is the kind of generosity we rarely aspire to, since most of us have no plans to give everything we have. But what if instead the widow is an indictment of the whole social, cultural, and religious system? The scribe asked an earnest question and received an honest answer. The exchange between Jesus and the scribe is theological education at its best.

But if our theology ends when the question is answered, we have a serious problem.

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—with every fiber of your being, with everything you are and everything you have and everything you know. Not just feel love, but love, the verb, the action.

We know that we love because God first loved us—breathing us into being, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, knitting us together and calling us into community, healing us and sustaining us. We have experienced God’s love, so we can love God.

The neighbor is trickier. Our neighbor may not love us first, or in return, or ever. Our neighbor may be difficult, or annoying, or dangerous, or different. And yet—because God loved us first, we love our neighbor as we do ourselves. We don’t have to feel love for them, but we do have to love them—to act in loving ways towards others, to desire the best for them, to work together for their good as much as for our own.

Notice Jesus didn’t put any qualifiers on neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself, period. Not “love your neighbor unless they’re muslim, or gay, or black, or poor, or a prisoner.” Just love your neighbor as yourself. And not “love your neighbor in your heart but feel free to mock them, call them names, push them around, use derogatory language about them, and hurt them with your words and your actions.” Love your neighbor as yourself. If the way we are treating people in our world right now is a reflection of how we love ourselves, we have a big problem. If it isn’t, but we still do it to others, we have a bigger problem.

Our theology is no good if it ends with the words. Love is more than that. All the “I love yous” in the world are meaningless if our actions say something else. All our long prayers praising God go unheard as long as the poor widow is in our midst putting in all she has while we look on in admiration but with no intention of alleviating her poverty. All the best seats in the house will show us nothing if our love stays locked away in our feelings and never makes an appearance in our public discourse, our relationships, our spending habits, our giving, our approach to solving problems. Actions speak louder.

I certainly hope God’s love goes beyond warm fuzzy feelings and pretty words—which means that if we are to love as we have been loved, ours must go beyond as well, until we see the poor widow as our neighbor, the people of Flint as our neighbors, the prisoners as our neighbors, the people on the other side of the partisan spectrum as our neighbors…and then we act like it. When we start treating each other with love, we will turn the world upside down.

May it be so.

Amen.

 

[1] http://fusion.net/story/264532/michigan-inmates-donate-flint/

[2] https://www.wesleyan.org/4736/inmates-give-to-help-others-in-trouble

Posted on March 6, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Real Live Camels--a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Real Live Camels
Mark 10.17-31
14 February 2016, Lent 1, NL2-23

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

~~~~~

 

I remember distinctly the very first time I heard this story. I was in high school, and it was my first time in a church service. I was a hired musician for the day at a Presbyterian church across town from my house, in West Valley which was everything you imagine when you hear those words.

This story was read and I thought “dang, this guy doesn’t mess around.”

The pastor stood up and I will never forget his first words: “Jesus doesn’t mean you have to sell all your stuff and give away all your money.”

I have no idea what the rest of the sermon was about, because in one sentence he proved to me every stereotype of religion was true. Not only did they not really believe this Jesus guy, but they were going to find a way to twist his words to justify their big houses, nice cars, and sparkly jewelry while over in my neighborhood my family was helping out a woman who couldn’t afford olives to make Thanksgiving dinner special for her kids.

In one sentence, he told me, on my first visit to a church, that going to church wasn’t about being like Jesus.

There were two services that day. I stayed through the special music at the second and then, when I was finished playing, I left, in the middle of the service. I had no need or interest to hear the sermon a second time—I’d heard plenty. I didn’t go into church for several years after that, though I certainly talked about that one time.

The way that pastor probably interpreted the story is a common one—that Jesus was speaking only to this man, or that he was saying that the things that get in the way of our relationship with God need to go (but that might not be possessions and money for all of us). He probably perpetuated the myth that there was a small gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle”—a myth created in the middle ages by a preacher who wanted to soften the blow of Jesus’ words for his patron. Or maybe he used the one about the word “camel” and the word “rope” being very similar.

Here’s the thing about those interpretations: they sound an awful lot like a way to justify our comfortable lifestyles and very little like Jesus. And when I hear it, I wonder what else we’re willing to justify, regardless of what Jesus says? We already talk our way around “love your enemies” and around “put away your sword” and “blessed are the peacemakers.” When someone listens to us talk about these things Jesus said, do they assume the same thing I did that day 20 years ago—that we have no intention of even trying to be Christlike?

Jesus is pretty blunt in this story. We are always listening to parables and wondering why Jesus can’t give a straight answer…well, here’s a straight answer, but we may not like it, because it feels so very extreme.

The man seems earnest in his seeking. He wants to know how to be faithful and to experience God’s loving presence. Jesus tells him to keep commandments 5-10, the ones about not harming your neighbor—don’t murder, steal, or commit adultery, honor your father and mother. And the man says he has obeyed them all.

So Jesus looks at the man—really looks at him, sees him to his core. And Jesus loved him—loved him enough to tell him the truth: that now it was time to keep the first half of the commandments too, the ones about love rather than just not-harm. Sell everything and give the money away, and come, follow me. Jesus loved this man enough to look him in the eye and say: the idols of your life have to go—and not just your stuff, but the security it represents for you and the indifference it shows to others. Redistribute your wealth as a sign that you love God and your neighbor, and come walk this road with me.

It’s pretty extreme. Sell everything. Give it all away. The disciples protest and Jesus both commends them and reiterates: leave it all—family and property, everything that tells us who we are. He uses an example: a camel, the largest animal any of them would know, and the eye of a needle, the smallest opening any of them would regularly encounter. That’s how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom. And in case we missed the extremes at play, he finishes with “the first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We want desperately to ease our discomfort and find a way to make Jesus a proponent of moderation in all things. But there’s nothing moderate here—it’s all or nothing. Moderation was what the man wanted to hear too—he has led a good life, followed the commandments. But Jesus loved him enough to say the hard thing: that the path to abundant life is not wide enough for all that he carried.

And the man was shocked and went away grieving. We look at him with sadness, wishing he’d had the guts to follow Jesus, when really, first of all, we don’t know if he did or not. Jesus said Go and the man went…his grief doesn’t mean he didn’t then do what Jesus said. After all, if we followed those instructions, I suspect we would grieve along the way too. We don’t know the rest of his story, or what he did with those words straight from the mouth of God.

And secondly, most of us have no intention of following Jesus this way either. Now, maybe some of us are already sacrificial givers, tithing and giving an offering that represents our gratitude for what God has done. I don’t know about you but I'm uncomfortable with Jesus’ words here. I’m no biblical literalist, but I have to wonder: what if he meant it? Finding out that the whole gate thing and the camel-rope mix-up thing were both made up by preachers as uncomfortable as I am, and that Jesus is almost certainly talking about a real live camel and an actual tiny needle as a representation of how hard it will be for me—because even though I am not wealthy here, I am on a global scale—to enter the kingdom of God…well, let’s just say that shocked and grieving are polite descriptions of how I feel about it.

If we want him to be talking about something else, I think we need to be honest about that—that we would rather Jess be talking to us about something else that gets in the way of our ability to follow him. And then whatever that thing is, we need to see if we’re willing to be just as extreme. Are we willing to give up every little bit of our partisan rancor and bickering, and actually work for the common good? Are we willing to give up every aspect of our love of violence—in our language, in our posturing, in our search for security—and instead learn to love our enemy? Are we willing to give up our nationalism and seek peace for all of God’s world? Are we willing to completely wipe out our indifference to the way other people are affected by our economic and social and political choices? Are we willing to give up any sense that we can secure our own safety or construct our own identity, and place our trust entirely in God? Or are we looking for ways we can make Jesus a moderate?

Lent is a season when we often disrupt our routine—maybe we fast from something, or maybe we take on something new. It’s a season when we examine our interior lives and look for ways to get rid of those things that hinder our discipleship, those things that we have decided—whether consciously or unconsciously—are more important than God’s call.

Jesus looks at us and loves us—not like hallmark cards and pink hearts love, but like giving everything including himself to us love. This isn’t a candy-hearts crush, it’s the kind of love that speaks truth and calls us into real life. To follow him will ask much of us. To follow him will turn everything we know upside down. To follow him will change us, and change the world. For with God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

Posted on February 14, 2016 and filed under 2016.

Lifesavers--a sermon for February 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Lifesavers
Mark 8.27-9.8
7 February 2016, Transfiguration, NL2-22, Epiphany 6 (A-Ha Moments)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’

 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

~~~~

This winter I have been reading a series of novels in which the main character is a scientist who travels the world studying dragons and getting into all kinds of scrapes and adventures along the way. She learns languages and makes friends in many cultures, she gets herself into and out of trouble, and she watches dragons underwater, on volcanoes, from ships, in trees, and flying through the air. She is working intensely to try to learn as much as possible about them, for a variety of reasons. After one particularly thrilling day of research, she has an incredible idea that seems to put all the pieces in place. She talks it over with a colleague, who agrees it is a real breakthrough deserving of more study…and so she writes an article and mails it off to a journal, from halfway around the world.

Within a few days of mailing the article, she sees something else, and her whole theory falls apart…but the mail is long gone and her own ship is far from port. By the end of the book, she is writing a new column retracting the previous one, and dealing with all the scrutiny and mockery that comes with her public confusion, even as she puts forth new and better research.

I couldn’t help but think of our Epiphany theme as I was reading about Lady Trent this weekend. The ups and downs of a-ha moments can be confusing! One minute, we see so clearly, and then when we have to integrate that new insight into our lives, everything seems so mixed up and muddy.

And so it is with Peter.

He has been watching Jesus, soaking up as much teaching as he can, seeing him heal bodies and communities against all odds. And in the middle of all the many temples to the god Pan that fill Caesarea Philippi, he sees so clearly, for just a moment, and in that moment Peter is the first to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah.

A few minutes later, he is plunged back into confusion as Jesus starts to talk about what this means. Peter understands all the words, but can’t make sense of them when they are put together. Surely Jesus can’t be serious.

So Peter, still giddy from his a-ha moment, knowing he got the right answer last time, decides to teach the teacher that this is no way to talk and really he should be careful not to mess up his Messiah-image.

He gets in front, and puts his idea of who Jesus is and what he should do ahead of what Jesus is actually saying. It’s like he published his essay when he only had half the information. He knew who Jesus was, but he hadn’t yet figured out what that meant.

Can you picture the scene? 11 disciples behind Jesus, following his steps and hanging on his every word. Peter in front of Jesus, telling him what to do.

And Jesus turns his body around and says “get behind me.”

Where disciples should be—right behind the rabbi, following his way.

Not in front, leading with their own agenda and ideas and preconceived notions. To be a follower of Jesus means following where he’s going, not leading him where we’re going. When Peter tried to be the leader rather than the follower, Jesus called him Satan—the adversary. Putting our own agenda, whether that is about what we want for ourselves or how we expect God to treat others or anything else, ahead of Christ’s agenda, means we are working against the kingdom, rather than for it. And Jesus reminds us of the difference between a disciple and an adversary: the disciple is behind Jesus, walking in his footsteps, not in front using our fear or our pride or our self-interest or our desire to block him from carrying out his mission. When we follow, we are never alone, and every place we go is a place Christ has been already.

So he calls the whole crowd—because Peter is all of us. To the whole crowd of people in this busy city—to all of us reading his words in the midst of our busy lives—Jesus explains what it means to be a follower of the Messiah.

They, and we, have seen what he does—his actions and his teaching, his priorities and consistency. The Messiah is the one who has been through every village in the country, touching unclean people, accepting foreigners, healing bodies that seemed irretrievably broken, putting communities back together in configurations no one knew they needed, teaching people a new way of living that isn’t defined by their status in the empire but by their status as people created in God’s image. The Messiah is the one who has fed every person and then some, who has inspired people to work together in ways they never imagined, and who has offered the same relationship and care to the poorest and the wealthiest, the Roman and the Jew, the religious leader and the bleeding woman.

This is the Messiah we follow. And in order to follow him, he says, we will have to lose our lives. If our priorities include strengthening our image, gaining wealth and power, saving our institution, or fretting about our security, we may hear those same words from Jesus: get behind me. You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Our human minds dwell on protecting our interests, climbing the ladder, assuaging our fear, getting what we want. But the divine mind seems to dwell on the people who are weak, unwanted, poor, rejected, despised. The divine mind seems to dwell on creating a world where no one goes hungry, no one is cast out, no one is judged even subconsciously by the color of their skin or the balance of their bank account or the size of their muscle or their accent or their win-loss record. It is this mind we are called to—the mind of Christ, who is the head of this body—and we are called to undertake his mission even at the risk of losing our life. Because when we try to save the way of life we like, we will lose the life that matters. Abundant life is possible, even now, but we will live into it only if we stop trying to win the good life we so often want instead.

Peter resumes his place behind Jesus. A week later, he and James and John hike up a mountain with Jesus and catch a glimpse of glory. They have a moment together, seeing just for an instant who Jesus is. And then Peter…god bless Peter…he gets out in front again, offering to build a village for them to live in together on top of the mountain, where people can take pilgrimages to see the holy men. And once again I can just picture Jesus’ face as he looks up to heaven in exasperation: seriously? This time God’s voice comes from the clouds: This is my Son—listen to him.

 

Listen to him.

 

Set aside what you think you know, and listen to him.

Let go of how he should work, and listen to him.

Take off the mask of “fine” and listen to him.

Lay down the burden of safety and self-interest, and listen to him.

Put away your shame and your pride, and listen to him.

 

Jesus said, those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Jesus said, love God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus said, give to God what is God’s.

Jesus said, bring them to me—outcast, disposable, useless, dirty, homeless, unlovable, children, women, foreigners. Faith has restored you to wholeness.

Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last will be first.

Jesus said, love your enemies.

Jesus said, I will be with you, I will go before you, do not be afraid.

Jesus said, you give them something to eat.

Jesus said, get behind and come, and follow me.

 

May we hear and obey. Amen.

Posted on February 8, 2016 and filed under 2016.

powerball--a sermon on Mark 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Powerball
Mark 4.1-34
17 January 2016, NL2-19 (Epiphany 3—aha moments)

 

Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

“they may indeed look, but not perceive,

   and may indeed listen, but not understand;

so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’

 And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’

 He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

This week, for the first time in my life, I bought a lottery ticket. In spite of the way I usually feel about the lottery, I joined the throngs of people in hoping against hope that a couple dollars would magically multiply into a billion.

It seems like human nature, almost, to want a big return on a small investment. To spend two dollars and end up with $450 million after taxes seems like a pretty good deal.

Except, of course, that the odds of winning are 1 in 292 million. And there were 371 million tickets sold for the big Wednesday Powerball drawing, with only three of those being jackpot winners. But none of that matters in the middle of the frivolous hope of winning. For just a moment, at 9:59pm, anything is possible.

What we would do with the money was a common topic of conversation all last week. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were discussing how they would spend such a massive amount of money.

I realize I move in unusual circles, but I was encouraged by how many people talked about how they would give the money away—people were discussing their favorite charities and causes dear to their hearts. I overheard conversations about malaria research, clean water, sustainable housing solutions, churches, supporting women’s education, and feeding hungry people. It was fascinating to listen to people daydream about how to be generous. It was as if, for just a moment, we imagined that we could truly be the farmer who scatters seeds far and wide, hoping that they would do some good even if we didn’t see it ourselves.

Of course, we can be that person anytime—scattering seeds of hope, love, grace, peace, and justice even if we can’t scatter checks with many zeroes. The farmer in the parable of the sower doesn’t stop to see if the ground is prepared, or worthy—he just spreads the seed everywhere and lets God, the creator and master gardener, handle the rest.

The second parable of the sower—the one where the person scatters seed and it grows while she sleeps—is only found in Mark. No one else tells this story where Jesus says that the kingdom grows automatically without our aid or intervention. Automatic is the word he uses, even—that the earth produces of itself, automatically. Because the seed was scattered, it will grow. It’s what God does—turns the scattered seeds of the word into fruit that can feed a multitude. Through the prophet Isaiah God says “my word will not return to me empty.” No matter where it falls, and whether we realize it or not, the word is at work. We may be simply going about our lives, while the seeds are deep in the damp darkness, breaking open and sending out shoots that reach down into the nutritious depths and up toward the light. It’s a mystery we cannot control, no matter how hard we try.

In fact, even the scattering of seed may have been unintentional in this second sower story. It does not seem that the person is a farmer, purposely planting a field. Instead it seems to be one of those things that happens in the course of life—a basket’s weave becomes loose, a pocket has a tiny hole, and seeds are scattered. It isn’t until they grow that we even realize they have been planted.

What if this is what the kingdom is like? Throughout our days, we are dropping seeds all over the place. Most of the time, they are unintentional. The way we treat the grocery store clerk. The expression we give the loud person on the train. The tone of voice we use with a coworker or a teacher or a student. The story about a neighbor we share over dinner. The way we respond to a racist joke or a sexist stereotype. The words we choose when we are frustrated. We know that children pick up the smallest things in the way we interact with each other. What if those same seeds are still planted throughout our lives? We never know who is observing us in the checkout line or on the train or at the library or in the parking lot. All along the way, every day, we are scattering seeds. And without our controlling them, they are growing—hopefully they are seeds of God’s love and grace and justice and peace; kingdom seeds. We won’t know until they start to bear fruit, but by then we may have moved on and never see the results…but others will. And every fruit bears more seeds, perpetuating the cycle.

Right before he tells this little story of the inadvertent sower, Jesus gives us the key to the parable: “the measure you give will be the measure you get. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” So often this feels so disturbing and wrong. If it’s about physical resources, it is horrifying—even what they have will be taken away. If it’s about faith, it’s still awful. If it’s about God’s blessing, it’s just about the worst thing ever, to think that those who have little would have even that little bit snatched away from them.

But when we read it together with the second sower parable, it becomes more clear: The seeds we sow are also the seeds we grow. When we sow seeds of grace, we also grow in grace. Not that we receive more because of the way we approach the world and interact with each other, but that our practice of graciousness increases our own sense of grace and gratitude. The more grace we give, the more we experience. The more justice we work for, the more justice becomes a part of us. The more peace we make, the more we have.

And if we are sowing seeds of fear, or miserliness, or discord, that is also what will increase in us. When we interact with the world from a place of unexamined privilege, or from a mindset of scarcity, then we end up perpetuating injustice, shutting people out when God is welcoming them in. And then our scarcity and our fear becomes our reality—because even what little graciousness we have withers up under the scorching heat of our self-focused desires.

This weekend we remember Martin Luther King Jr, and hopefully while we remember the big dreams and lofty goals, the massive marches and stirring speeches, we also remember that he never said only big things matter. Yes, we need to work for big things—for liberty and justice for all, for an end to a socio-political system that privileges some over others, for a change to a culture in which some people are automatically suspicious. We also need to remember that big changes sometimes come through small steps. Every time we refuse to be suspicious of a neighbor, we drop a seed. Every time we stand up for someone who has been excluded, we drop a seed. Every time we write a senator, speak to someone others ignore, buy something made locally, and choose not to use violent language, we drop seeds. And the way we judge each other, the way we treat each other, the posture from which we approach the world—it will grow in us, too. If we judge each other with grace, treat every person with respect, approach the world with peace, we will soon find grace and respect and peace welling up and bearing fruit in our own lives. It may be dangerous—the world is afraid of those whose lives are evidence of a still more excellent way, and fear takes over just as surely as love. But imagine if every one of us was scattering kingdom seeds, instead of fear and greed seeds. It would add up to an amazing harvest.

Pay attention, Jesus says. Pay attention to how you listen, how you hear, how you speak, how you act. Pay attention, because those seeds you scatter throughout your days will grow in your own life as well. Make sure they are kingdom seeds. But then stop trying to control how they grow. The thing about the kingdom of God is that it is not the kingdom of me, not the kingdom of the church…it is about God’s authority in our lives as individuals and a community, it is about God’s power in the world, and it is almost never going to accord with what I think is best for me. God has a bigger picture and a greater good in mind, and God’s word never returns empty.

Like powerball, these seeds are a tiny investment with a huge return. Unlike powerball, the odds are very good, and we have already been given all the riches we could ever need. So now that we are done daydreaming about how to give away millions of dollars we’ll never have, it’s time for us to actually live the same generosity we have already experienced, and practice planting kingdom seeds with every look, every word, every vote, every interaction, no matter how small. We can scatter grace far and wide, and we can trust that God will use every seed wisely, to its fullest potential—both where it lands, and in us—to produce a harvest that will be full of glory and praise.

May it be so. Amen.

Posted on January 18, 2016 and filed under 2016.